George Bowering’s new novel, No One, was published last month by Toronto’s venerable indie publisher ECW press (it was founded back in the 1970s as Essays in Canadian Writing). But apparently not without a little internal debate among the press’s staff about whether the book commits the sin of “objectifying” some of the novel’s female characters. The discussion inspired Bowering to write a brief “essay in Canadian writing” in the form of a letter to some of ECW’s staff. Here it is:
To some of ECW’s workers.
I would feel so much better if I could address you by name, because a conversation works better that way, but I will respect anyone’s wish to be anonymous in this regard. If any awkwardness eventuates due to this situation, please understand that I would like a fair exchange of information and views. At the end of January, while I was working on a new book in Mexico, I got an e-mail from Jack David in which he informed me that some of the women at ECW who have read the manuscript of No One are uneasy with ECW’s publishing it, feeling that the fiction “objectifies women.” These women, Mr. David told me, work in publicity, marketing, and editorial. He did for us all the respectful thing of reading the manuscript again, and because the writing is good, decided to go ahead with printing and publication. But he will not force anyone to work on the book if they feel that it should not be published. Therefore “the result will possibly be less attention for the book.” As I am in my eighties, and it is unlikely that I will have time to write another novel, I am disappointed. The few women and men who read the manuscript before I submitted it have called it a very good book and my best fiction; I guess I would rather see it attacked by the critics than semi-censored before its birth. My publisher has called it “a strong piece of writing––funny at times, caustic, realistic, and surprising.” Before starting this conversation with you, I read the book again, and was unshyly impressed with the writing.
First, let me say a few words about objectification. As is my wont, as you know from reading the text, I like to begin with a look at etymology. For my fellow novelist Audrey Thomas, that would mean opening a Skeat; for me it has always been Partridge.
If you are accustomed to using books of word origins this way, you start with “object,” and once you get something like the thing thrown out for consideration, you look at “subject,” the thing thrown under, and “interject,” the thing thrown between, and “eject,” the thing thrown out. Of course, this is fun, so you have to make sure you don’t just spend the next ten hours turning pages in your Partridge. But you remember that it was long ago that you were a young poet, finding out that etymology was the best ever generator of metaphors (and no, we are not here going into the common discovery that that word has to do with carrying across). And we remember learning that the roots of words are not what happened in the past, but what makes the plant stay alive now.
So, so far, “object” has no negative connotations. What about “objectification”? I guess we have to surmise what is meant by the term, figuring that out by looking at the alternative. I have not yet been instructed as to what the author should do rather than see his characters objectively. One answer would be to treat their experience subjectively. But I have also heard male authors vilified for attempting to write from the point of view of a female character. I don’t want to treat any character (or person) as a subject, having an unpleasant memory of being called, in my youth, a “British subject,” and a “subject of the Queen/King.” Perhaps that is partly why I was attracted to Charles Olson’s famous essay “Projective Verse”, wherein he suggested using the term “objectism”:
Objectism is the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the “subject” and his soul, that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature (with certain instructions to carry out) and those other creations of nature which we may, with no derogation, call objects. For a man is himself an object, whatever he may take to be his advantages, the more likely to recognize himself as such the greater his advantages, particularly at that moment that he achieves an humilitas sufficient to make him of use.
It comes to this: the use of a man, by himself and thus by others, lies in how he conceives his relation to nature, that force to which he owes his somewhat small existence. If he sprawl, he shall find little to sing but himself, and shall sing, nature has such paradoxical ways, by way of artificial forms outside himself. But if he stays inside himself, if he is contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets objects share.
Sorry to go all theoretical on you, but I take these things seriously, and unlike a lot of Canadian writers, I don’t just write as if it were a naturally inherited skill.
Here’s another problem to discuss: if objectifying is something bad, who is doing it here, the narrator or the author? Or to put it another way, how long does it take a reader to agree with Honey that the narrator is an “asshole”? Or is Honey guilty of objectifying when she calls him that? I have to admit that the accusatory use of that word confuses me. Maybe we should find another term of vilification. This is why I wish that we were in conversation, instead of relying on the hearsay I heard. In not wanting the book to be publicised and distributed, are you hoping to thwart me or my fictional character, whom I do not champion or identify with.
Odysseus is commonly considered the first great hero of (semi)western literature. We don’t really know who Homer was, whether he was just one person, whether he was necessarily male as is his creation. We wonder how much the Odyssey derived from myth and how much was human poetry. In ancient Greece a hero was a man who had the courage to venture beyond the sight of familiar land. Yet the frame of Odysseus’s post-Iliad story was his attempt to get back with Penelope and Telemachus. “All I ever wanted to do was get home and be with my wife,” avers the narrator of our book on page 5 and pretty often through the text. So, he compares in that regard with Homer’s hero, and we are invited to compare him as well with Euripides’s slayer of the Cyclops, Tennyson’s Ulysses, and Joyce’s Leopold Bloom. In our conversation, I would be interested to hear your observations in that regard.
Similarly, if you took up my suggestion to read the novel Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon, by Nicole Brossard, you will understand why it belongs in my story, and you will have understood my narrator’s behaviour in his relationship with that novel’s author, Canada’s best-known feminist poet and fiction writer. As you know, I have long been a fan of intertextuality, and my bargain with my reader has often, if not usually, involved other texts, from the past or the present. So the lotus-eaters of my novel cannot be seen independently of those in Tennyson’s poem and maybe in contrast to Odysseus’s Protestant-like self-denial. So, have you been invited by the lotus-eaters episode to compare Delsing with the heroic warrior Odysseus. Would you prefer one over the other? I am really interested in such notions.
Thus, in the chapter that runs pp. 195-201 you will have enjoyed, perhaps, some important differences between Cissy and the original Circe. I hope you found the treatment funny. In truth, my whole interrogation of the epic won’t work if the comedic odour is not always somewhere around. For example, can you imagine our Attic hero’s whistling “You’re nobody till somebody loves you” as he enters the cave of the one-eyed monster or the bedroom of the swine-rancher?
But also, in the moment of such laughs, you will have noticed, our narrator (as on p.202, and so often elsewhere) forbears and forbids the famous “male gaze,” asking readers to employ their own imaginations if they desire to. He also, as on page 210, says that readers who are annoyed or bored, should skip the following passage. This does not always happen (and there is a reason for that, too) but it happens more than once or twice.
Here is something I wonder about: in reading the text and noting that the narrative resembles an eighteenth-century picaresque, did you stop to think that the allegorical variety of the “hero’s” encounters might be accompanied by a sampling of various assertions in recent attacks against fictional portrayals of sexual relations between (or among) the sexes? I began this letter, we remember, with my problem in seeing the presence of “objectification.” I tried getting behind some other eyes, but in the first two pages of the book we meet the alleged objectifier, and I, for one ask, whether an objectifier thinks about his “wronging” a woman?
No help there.
All right, then the narrator compares himself with Kirk of the naked thighs, and for the first time invites some chuckles or at least smiles aimed in his direction. Then he is called an “asshole,” something his heroic forebear didn’t have to hear.
So, let us see the women our adventurer encounters in his mock-epic voyage. I would like to say here that he never denigrates one. In fact, I would venture to say that he feels admiration for all of them. If I were writing a critical article about this quest story, I might note of the “central figure’s” posture in each encounter. Begin as the book does, with Danaë. He has to enter her room on his hands and knees. When he gets there, Danaë throws him around. (That -ject root again.) Here we might consider the question of sex and power. It is clear that Danaë wields the power, and that Delsing admires her. I think we are being introduced to a theme here. Even in the scene with Fé, the first one to feature a description of sex, after 100 pages have gone by, I can’t find any imbalance of power.
I think that the baffling question of “objectification” could better be understood as a question of power. There are, in the novel, two scenes in which an often-considered question of power and sex comes up, i.e. when there is a possibility of the teacher’s taking advantage of the student by withholding grades or the like. In one instant, he stops the procedure; in the other, he is promised that the student-teacher relationship is over. In the chapter that takes place in the Ivy League, I can see no instance of the male person employing his power. I believe that the main thing that is going on for the writer and reader is the wordplay, the literary allusions and the humour that results. I think it’s really funny, and it is therefore my favourite episode in the story. And it is accompanied with the oft-repeated suggestion to the reader to do her own imagining. The narrator helps somewhat, as with his introduction of the word “power” on page 223, followed quickly by his use of the other abstract word “homage.” I kind of think the author had this choice in mind when it came to the book’s argument.
Speaking of which, I would be interested to know your reading of the passage (pp. 217ff) about inappropriate stuff and politically correct stuff. You might also go back to page ten and tell me what you think of the skinny old woman with the violin on the Bayou Teche. Do you think that she is being objectified or admired? Don’t you think she takes her place among the women of this book just as she does with the author and characters in the other novel mentioned in her paragraph? The narrator of my novel says that he feels love for these old Louisiana musicians and dancers, love “without a trace of sex in the neighbourhood.”
Remember that this claim is being made by a guy who was a 21-year-old virgin. The scene in which he recalls the loss of his virginity shows him to have been rather feckless during the event. Concerning his history of extramarital sex, he admits, “most of my adulterous experience had been accidental or marked by shortcomings.” Do you think that such an honest admission is likely to be made by a person who wields power over exploited victims? I may be wrong, but I think that he is more often than not a figure of amusement, more of a Tom Jones than a Hugh Hefner. I thought I might clarify things or make them more nicely foggy with my burlesque of the returning hero in that little chapter about Odysseus and Penelope that ends with her calling him a “fucking asshole” (pp. 89-91), wherein both words might be considered.
I also liked indulging myself with clever allusions befitting a modernist writer, eh? In the chapter about initials I prided myself about preparing the story of Z and the Story of O,(hence Oz), and then slipping in the remark “re age”, which, if the first letter were capitalized and the second letter were pushed to the right, and outfitted with an acute accent, would give us the pen-name for the author of the most famous erotic novel of 1954. Yes, it is my typical indulgence, and complicates the intertextuality and all that, but I don’t think I am the only person in this activity who thinks such play is funny even though instructive.
I do not expect all my readers to get all my allusions, heaven forbid. I know better than to hope that they will look up references, to find out, for instance, why my narrator said “I blessed the name Agrestis Nettar Ibleo,” though the humour will be diminished and misunderstood if they don’t.
Well, in the old days, before Pauline Réage, censorship was practised or urged for any text that questioned religious government or mentioned sexual activity. In recent times it is directed against any imagery that might make potential readers “uncomfortable,” or that might seem contrary to their beliefs. Thus, when Huckleberry Finn was first published, people wanted it to be curtailed because it portrayed a friendship between a white boy and a black man. Several decades later it was yanked out of libraries because it portrayed nineteenth-century folks in the south of the USA using the word “nigger.” I’d just like to maintain that contrary to what the song claimed, the objects of my affection cannot change my complexion.