How Male Entitlement Ruins the Best and Purest of Things
It probably says something about me that until early October this year, the whole phenomenon known as alt-lit had flown under my radar, Russian stealth-fighter fashion, which is no mean feat for a literary movement which appears, from the descriptions of those outside it, to be all about self-exposure on whichever social media forum happens to be most public. I’m not sure what that something is, other than I quickly click past websites which announce the presence of a ‘new literary paradigm’ the way most people would speed up past a pile of rotting meat, and if that sounds snide, or as if I’m pouring cold water on other people’s literary dreams, then all I can say is that some dreams deserve to have cold water poured on them and I’m not sorry for that.
Because of my blissful ignorance, the first inkling I had about alt-lit came in the form of a scandal and I’m not proud to say that got my attention in a way no number of hyperliterary Tumblr posts would have. There’s an irony in the fact that real life turned out to be more interesting to me than real life lightly dressed up as fiction, which is what the ‘new literary paradigm’ of alt-lit appeared to boil down to. Given the choice between a YouTube video of disaster and a modern dance interpretation of that same event, I’m a YouTube gal every time. That probably says something about me too.
So, the scandal. You’re probably all familiar with the details now, but if not, accounts can be found here and here. I read them and generally, when one reads such accounts of abuse and misogyny, one is supposed to experience a mounting sense of outrage, but actually although I did experience a mounting sense of something, the primary emotion which built up in my consciousness wasn’t anger. It wasn’t even despair, which one is also often expected to have when privileged people who ought to know better behave in terrible ways. My mounting sense was hard to describe but came in the form of an absence of surprise. I had a mounting sense of not being surprised.
The phrase ‘male entitlement’ has been hanging around the internet for a few years now, mostly on websites which self-identify as having a feminist slant. It means in a sense on the part of #somebutnotall men that their sexual desire is a problem that women have a duty to solve. The thinking seems to go that since women cause the sexual desire, women are morally bound to satisfy it. Male entitlement, described that way, has been around as long as the penis, but as a concept it became boosted into public consciousness in May of this year, when Elliot Rodger killed six people in Isla Vista. Rodger’s act of mass murder caught our attention more than usual for two reasons – his father has a quoteworthy job in show business and he made a public record of the reasons for his actions, a spleen-filled video and a weepy manifesto about the unfairness of a world which wouldn’t allow him to have sex with any pretty woman who caught his eye. Suddenly, male entitlement was not the invention of some wild-eyed SJWs who needed to take a chill pill and stop veiling their secret hatred of men in hard-to-parse academic articles. Suddenly male entitlement had a face and a voice.
As if a huge and blurry object has now snapped into focus, once a thing is named, you see it everywhere. Attitudes and acts which didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow ten years ago make headlines now. There doesn’t appear to be an arena of human expression which doesn't contain a room in which this toxic elephant has recently been spotted: the NFL, the music industry, fashion photography, video gaming, the atheist movement, YouTube entertainment channels, British light entertainment, college campuses and the US military. 2014 isn't even out, and already all of these have found themselves the subject of headlines with a common subject at the core: male entitlement.
Does this explain my mounting lack of surprise at the alt-lit story? Male entitlement may not affect all men, but it affects men in all walks of life. We live in a world where men are men and women are objects. We live in a world where aggression is promoted as a desirable quality. We live in a world where the first act of any game-based reality TV show is to divide the contestants into two teams: one for the boys and one for the girls, as if to underline the fact in heavy marker pen that gender is the supreme divider. The fact that any of us, male or female, manage to overcome that tide of programming, one which starts as soon as we pop out of the womb if not before (what’s the first question we ask when a couple posts the ultrasound on FB?), and create successful relationships with those not of our gender, is cause for surprise. That some men take too literally the tacit message that women owe them sex, because men are the ones who do all the important stuff and women ought to be eternally grateful for that and demonstrate said gratitude in the bedroom, can’t come as a surprise to anyone, me included.
But it is a cause of sadness. Call me naïve, but I believe that making a success of writing as a profession demands a greater than ordinary degree of self knowledge. Writers have to understand other people: what motivates them, what makes them happy, what makes them sad. We need to guess at hidden secrets. We must comprehend the roots of shame and the drive to overcome hardships. When we create successful characters in our fiction; then with nothing more than marks on a page we have constructed a human persona which other people can recognize and root for. Writing, more than any form of artistic expression requires empathy, and male entitlement, based on the notion that women aren’t real people with a point of view, is its antithesis. This is what makes me sad: that in the case of these events all it took to vanquish empathy, the writer’s most important tool, was a sniff of power.
To be fair, the alt-lit offenders aren’t the first men to abuse literary success. From Norman ‘woman should be kept in cages’ Mailer to David Foster Wallace, who made up for a lonely adolescence with ‘audience pussy’, some male writers have grabbed the chance to translate prominence into promiscuity, and who knows how high or low some of them set the bar of consent? As I said above, until recently, male entitlement was the out-of-focus elephant in the room. Any woman who felt herself abused by a famous man of letters and decided to speak out, would have found herself pointing at a pachyderm that no one else could see.
Things have changed and for the better. Women can point and the rest of us can see. As those of us who read the bottom half of the internet know, some men don’t like the pointing. The elephant isn’t that big, they say. These are isolated cases of elephants. Or, when cornered: This isn’t about elephants at all. It’s about standards in journalism. In the case of the alt-lit male entitlement elephant, one fact encourages me. No one has tried to minimize the beast, or pretend it is a giraffe, or claim that 'there women go again, making up elephants that don’t exist.' One of those named copped to his offense immediately. Another came forward unprompted. Perhaps being a writer does require a deeper degree of empathy after all.
Do I have a mounting sense of hope? A hope that the literary world will be the first to escape the dismal chasm of male entitlement and create an environment which rewards people according to their talents, avoids the traps of overhype and flattens power imbalances? I do have hope, but the gradient of my hope is shallow. The publishing industry still operates too frequently on the basis of who you know, not how you write. We still kiss the hem of the successful in the belief that success is, like Ebola, a transmissible condition. We bestow success on men more readily than women, because that’s our mindset – men succeed, women support. We confuse confidence with trustworthiness and the results are bad for everyone.
In 2009, Gideon Lewis-Kraus visited the Frankfurt Book Fair and wrote about the experience for Harpers . Publishing was, at that time, experiencing one of its regular apocalypses. Confronted by tables piled with unpunctuated Slovenian poetry and manga guides to statistical regression, Lewis-Kraus remarks: ‘It is tempting to think that the problem with publishing is just too many awful books, but then again 99 percent of anything is mediocre, and people don’t tend to complain that there are too many mediocre widgets. Books are something we have higher expectations for.’
Male entitlement ruins the best and the purest things. As writers, let’s aim higher.
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