It has been a year of math. How many less-famous women equal one famous man? How many female words of accusation equal how many male words of denial? How many reported articles does it take to topple one network executive? How many women’s careers derailed add up to nine months of a man’s professional banishment? How many credible allegations of sexual harassment and assault render a Presidential candidate unelectable? (Answer: some number greater than twenty.) #MeToo has made us all into algebra students, solving and re-solving for x and y.
There is something almost cathartic about turning into a number, about seeing your value, or lack thereof, confirmed with frankness and neutrality. Math is the enemy of gray areas. Math is pay inequalities and rape statistics. The literal meaning and the enthralling promise of the phrase “held to account” is that one might open the books and force a settlement.
In the arts, too, gendered power analyses often manifest as quantification: How many male writers do we read versus how many female? How many books by men versus women earn reviews in how many magazines, and how many awards do the books receive, and what are the gender compositions of the judging committees? The understanding is that decisions about who gets noticed and praised have implications for what kinds of viewpoints and behaviors are enshrined as valid. In May, the author Lauren Groff submitted a “By the Book” interview to the Times that functioned as a rebuke to previous iterations of the column, in which prominent men of letters frequently proved themselves unable to name any female literary influences on their work. (A subsequent analysis found that, in the hundred most recent “By the Book” ’s, half of the fifty-four male authors featured did not mention a single woman.) “Why does it almost always seem as though they have only read one or two women in their lives?” Groff asked, after outlining a remedial, all-female syllabus. Her critique energized a hashtag, #ReadMoreWomen, that had emerged in March, along with a no-men-allowed book club run by the Web site Electric Literature. Implicit in these salvos was the notion that the ledgers need rebalancing—that until parity is achieved, the number of male-authored stories that anyone should consume is zero.
Among literary figures, the closest there has been to a casualty of the #MeToo movement is Junot Díaz: after he was accused of forcible kissing and verbal abuse, he stepped down as the chairman of the Pulitzer Prize board and saw several of his events cancelled, but an investigation at M.I.T. cleared him of misconduct, and he continues to teach writing at the university. (Díaz denied the allegations.) A more meaningful inflection point may have come in May, with the death of Philip Roth. As women, we learned to read Roth’s books—horny, shouty, mournful, profound—with a kind of double vision, which was the inverse of his half-vision, an intermittent, gendered blindness that limited where his warmth and brilliance could be brought to bear. (In “Portnoy’s Complaint,” he characterized New Jersey matrons as “cows, who have been given the twin miracles of speech and mah-jongg.”) Through him, female readers were acquainted with what may prove the defining dynamic of the past year’s reckoning: that, too often, women are able to imagine men’s subjectivity, but men cannot imagine women’s. This incongruity glared in the confessionals of John Hockenberry, in Harper’s Magazine, and Jian Ghomeshi, in The New York Review of Books: they spoke from exile’s far shore, attempting to add nuance to the fable of the humiliated alpha, the aggressor cast aside. The pieces were mendacious, but what made them especially painful to absorb was their expectation that the authors be granted their full complexity while the women they harmed suffered a second erasure. Both essayists described loneliness and anger, ecstasies of self-recrimination; neither spared much thought for the people they were said to have punched or fondled. “I feel sorry for a lot of these men,” Michelle Goldberg wrote, in the Times, “but I don’t think they feel sorry for women, or think about women’s experience much at all.”
There’s a word for this phenomenon: asymmetry. “Asymmetry” is also the title of a novel that surprised readers, in February, with its nerve and grace—and with its starring turn from a lightly fictionalized Philip Roth. The author, Lisa Halliday, carried on a love affair with Roth when she was a twentysomething publishing assistant. Her book unfolds the romance between Alice, an aspiring writer, and Ezra, a charming, geriatric novelist. Halliday only teases at the inner life of her female protagonist in the book’s first half; it blooms, unexpectedly, in the second. (As my colleague Alexandra Schwartz observes, Roth also wrote about an older man in a relationship with a younger woman. In “The Dying Animal,” he evokes that younger woman chiefly as a pair of breasts.) “Asymmetry” carries a hint of correction, but it is not an act of retaliation of the kind that #MeToo skeptics seem to fear. Ezra remains intact, human, as Alice awakens into her powers. Off the page, one could argue that Halliday has deepened Roth’s legacy, conjuring a vulnerable side to the author that feels almost feminine.
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