Self-consciousness, self-reflexivity and metafiction are terms often used to describe a particular characteristic common to postmodern fiction. Robert Alter has defined the “self-conscious novel” to be a novel which “systematically flaunts its own condition of artifice” in order “to convey to us a sense of the fictional world as an authorial construct” (x, xi). Linda Hutcheon defines “metafiction” in a similar manner, calling it “fiction about fiction—that is, fiction that includes within itself a commentary on its own narrative and/or linguistic identity” (Narcissistic 1). And while Alter and others point out that such self-consciousness has been characteristic of some works of fiction since the development of the novel (indeed, what many take to be the very first work of novelistic fiction—Don Quixote—is highly self-conscious), it is unmistakable that self-conscious or metafictional practices have veritably exploded in the so-called postmodern era. Furthermore, some scholars have noticed that the self-conscious indulgences of postmodern literature have been primarily the territory of white male writers. What few have pointed out thus far, however, is the extent to which the Women’s Movement and the subsequent challenge to male privilege at all levels of social organization was a key stimulus of that self-consciousness. Through an examination of the form of fiction I am calling “autofiction,” I will argue that, just as modernist crises of masculinity led to a reification of the self-abnegating attempts at universality and objectivity of High Modernist literature, postmodern crises of masculinity were a contributing factor in the widespread manifestation of self-consciousness in postmodern literature.
From the late nineteenth through the twentieth century, countless public figures viewed the influence of the various women’s movements as an overt threat to traditional manhood: as crises of masculinity. Many were the exhortations to reassert male authority in the household and to reaffirm traditional masculinity—however it was currently defined—in the greater world. As this essay will discuss, however, it was not common to discuss—or even to recognize—the effects of masculine privilege on literary endeavor until the latter part of the twentieth century, with the advent of feminist literary criticism. While male Modernist writers thought and wrote a great deal about their artistic philosophies, they usually did so without overtly recognizing the extent to which their ideas were inflected by masculine-gendered concerns. As a corrective, late-twentieth-century scholars of Modernism pored over historical artifacts in order to demonstrate the effect shifting gender expectations had on historical events and artistic innovations. But, again, these insights are only now coming to light: the Modernist artistic figures themselves seemed patently unaware of any influence the international Suffrage Movement or changing perceptions of women’s societal roles might have had on the artistic events of the day. It has taken the profoundly important work of scholars such as Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, Bonnie Kime Scott among many others to point out the extent to which Modernist literary texts and philosophies are steeped in gender concerns, namely, in the shoring up of masculine power and privilege.
Following in these scholars’ influential footsteps, I want to turn my attention to the subsequent era of literary self-consciousness, usually referred to as postmodernism. Many so-called postmodern writers responded to the perceived loss of centrality of the traditional male authorial figure by resorting to self-conscious narrative experiments, often involving the inclusion of fictional versions of the author figure himself. I use the term “autofiction” to refer to works of fiction in which there appears a fictional character who has the author’s name, and, while he resembles the author in some respects, is a clearly fictional character in others. To clarify, I am referring here neither to memoirs, in which the writer writes overly about him/herself, nor to works of fiction in which the protagonist resembles, but is a fictionalized version of, the author. Rather, in the “autofiction” to which I refer, the protagonist is meant to be read as the author; he even takes the author’s name. However, autofictions are distinct from autobiography, for they are to varying degrees fictional, despite the onomastic connection between the author and the protagonist. An illustrative example would be Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, in which young “Philip Roth” inhabits an America in which Charles Lindberg has been elected President in order to enact a proto-fascist, anti-Semitic platform.
This autofictional trend became popular in the mid-twentieth century and has since exploded to the extent that it has become something of a literary cliché. I will argue here that when white male postmodern writers insert these eponymous avatars of themselves into their works, they often do so to reassert a masculine privilege that is perceived as waning. For, during the latter part of the twentieth century, gender consciousness began to be raised, at first mostly focused on the effects and limits of femininity as a social construction. Then, more recently, that critical and theoretical attention has been turned to the effects, limits and very real privileges of masculinity as well. I will focus in particular on the ways in which the “crisis in masculinity” (whether it be a single, long-lasting crisis or a series of differentiated ones) has given rise to an increased self-consciousness in fiction by white men, exemplified by the popularity of the autofictional trope.
The copious theoretical work done in recent years on the history of maleness and masculinity reveals one thing quite clearly: white masculinity has apparently been “in crisis,” either continually or serially, since the turn of the nineteenth century. These “crises” have been given various names and arise in response, among other things, to the rise of women’s movements demanding suffrage, demands for civil rights for people of color, rising immigration rates, changing industrial and consumption patterns and increasing numbers of women in the workplace. As a result, the traditional view of what it means to be a man has been evolving rapidly, often to the chagrin of the men involved. Indeed, historians of masculinity have argued that some of the greatest resistance to the demands of the various women’s and civil rights movements of the late-19th, 20th and early 21st centuries has arisen from the realization that, if women and people of color were to be granted greater representation in personal, public and professional life, a complementary adjustment would have to be made on the part of white men. Hence, dominant masculinity has for decades continually been perceived to be in crisis.
For example, David Rosen posits that before World War I, white men “suffered psychic conflict from the softening of gender lines under the influence of urban middle-class domestication” (1993, 181). In response, men’s and boys’ groups emerged to “remasculinize” men; arguably, World War I itself arose as the primary means by which this remasculinization was to occur. According to Kaja Silverman’s seminal book Male Subjectivity at the Margins, the idea of “masculinity in crisis” continues into post-World-War-II America. David Savran builds upon Silverman’s argument by tracing the effects of this crisis in contemporary white American masculinity, while Alice Ferrebe argues that, in the decades following World War II, masculinity “fail[ed] to pay the traditional dividends” in a world of men “anxious over its waning influence” (2005, 1, 8). Sally Robinson’s Marked Men: White Masculinity in Crisis chronicles what she calls a “white male decline in post-sixties America” (200, 2). With the post-war rise of the “Women’s Liberation Movement” in the 1960s and 70s, masculinity was once again ostensibly thrown into “crisis.” This sense of a masculinity crisis caused, among other things, the 1980s “backlash” against feminist advancements that was so well documented by Susan Faludi. Furthermore, in response to Second Wave Feminism’s “Women’s Liberation Movement,” some men called for a corresponding “Men’s Movement,” bringing about reactions as wide ranging and varied as the “Wild Man” retreats run by Robert Bly in the 1970s, the militia movement of the 1990s and the Tea Party activists of the present day.
Today, even young boys are facing a supposed crisis, and their struggles to fit into contemporary American educational structures are outlined in books like Michael Kimmel’s Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era. Discussions of race and gender are vital to understanding these male crises, since, Kimmel argues, they involve white men’s feelings of “aggrieved entitlement” as they fail to achieve or be granted the economic and social power which they have been acculturated to see as their due. These feelings of aggrieved entitlement have been (rather successfully) articulated in right-wing desires to “take our country back” from the Other—namely, Barack Obama—who has usurped it, as well as the proliferation of open-carry gun zealots roaming grocery stores with semi-automatic rifles. This latest masculinity crisis culminates in the rise to prominence of Donald Trump as an openly misogynist presidential candidate who played on white, working-class male fears of a loss of dominance by promising to “Make American Great Again” by deporting immigrants, barring Muslims from entering the country and being linked to white supremacist groups. This point was made in a manner that seemed comic at the time, but seems tragic now when, at one of the Republican debates, Trump felt the need to reassure supporters that, despite frequent jokes about his small hands, his penis is a respectable size. In fact, it could be argued that this entire election enacted a white masculinity crisis reinvigorated by the legacy of the first black president and the threat of the first female one.
It is interesting to note that words like “crisis” become the common terms of art when an empowered group is faced with having to relinquish, or even just share, some of that power. Tellingly, such terms are not used in discussions of women or people of color negotiating new ways of defining their identities and engaging with the world. Rather, a situation becomes a “crisis” when entrenched conceptions of supremacy might be on the chopping block. Moreover, the term provides a certain rhetorical cover for the reactionary and often repressive actions of those on the potentially losing end. A backlash against feminist advancements is understandable—even defensible—when such a backlash is couched in terms of a “masculinity crisis.” How else ought a population in crisis to respond to changing circumstances but to quash those changes as completely as possible? Such reactionary responses have emerged again and again as various civil rights and women’s movements have emerged. It is important to note that what I am identifying is the perception that masculinity is in crisis, rather than the actual fact of such a crisis. For, as R.W. Connell has argued, “masculinity” is not a concrete and organized system, but rather “a configuration of practice within a system of gender relations” (1995, 84). As such, then, it is not masculinity that is “in crisis,” but rather, the entire gender order. For this reason, I agree with Sally Robinson when she says: “The question of whether dominant masculinity is ‘really’ in crisis is, in my view, moot: even if we could determine what an actual, real, historically verifiable crisis would look like, the undeniable fact remains that in the post-liberationist era, dominant masculinity consistently represents itself as in crisis” (2000, 11, emphasis mine). In other words, what is important for both Robinson’s and for my argument is not whether white male privilege is actually being threatened, but rather how the perceptions of those threats are made culturally manifest and reflected in the literature of their time.
In this case, I want to draw a line of connection between these perceived crises of masculinity and what I am calling autofiction, particularly that written by white men. Through an examination of autofiction, I will posit that some aspects of postmodern self-consciousness can be linked to the mid-to-late-century rise of what has come to be called “second-wave feminism.” As feminist literary theory emerged to challenge the traditional notion that our conception of “the author” is unquestionably male by default, the so-called “literary fiction” of white male writers took a decidedly self-conscious turn. This development directly contrasts (and also, paradoxically, arose from) the High Modernist mandate that the author’s “self” should be far removed from the work of art. And while the self-less-ness of the Modernist period has been ascribed to the attempt to maintain for literature an objective, masculine identity, my argument is that the growing awareness of masculine privilege brought about by Second Wave Feminism’s forays into literary theory fomented aspects of the increasing self-consciousness of post-war American fiction. In other words, the notorious metafictionality of postmodern literature is in part a response to feminist interventions in literary criticism. I will demonstrate the ways in which the increased awareness of what Virginia Woolf would call “sex-consciousness”—-particularly among male writers—contributed to the self-consciousness that developed in the literature of the late twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, particularly through the autofictional mode.
In 1929 in A Room of One’s Own, Woolf describes that period as “stridently sex-conscious” and she surmises that this situation was sparked into being by the Suffrage campaign: “It must have roused in men an extraordinary desire for self-assertion; it must have made them lay an emphasis upon their own sex and its characteristics which they would not have troubled to think about had they not been challenged” (Woolf 1995, 99). Woolf quite famously goes on to argue that this sex-consciousness manifests in men’s writing as a metaphorical giant “I” that appears on the page and obscures everything else. As Peter Schwenger puts it, according to Woolf: “Becoming self-conscious of their sex, male writers are now laboring under a disadvantage that was formerly women’s alone” (1984, 10). Female writers had (and still have) to grapple with the idea of what it means to be both a writer and a woman; the argument of A Room of One’s Own is that, for the first time, male writers are becoming “sex-conscious” as well.
It is instructive to draw a connection between masculine “sex-consciousness” and literary self-consciousness to the 1970 publication of Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics because this book is often regarded to be the first example of second-wave feminist literary criticism. Indeed, at the time of its publication, some saw the book as the first coherent articulation of a more general academically-generated philosophical basis for the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 70s, as this rather dismissive remark from the Time Magazine review of the book demonstrates: “Until this year, however, with the publication of a remarkable book called Sexual Politics, the movement had no coherent theory to buttress its intuitive passions, no ideologue to provide chapter and verse for its assault on patriarchy” (“Who’s” 1970, 16). While this comment ignores centuries of feminist thought and theory, it does highlight the extent to which Sexual Politics ushered a mainstream consideration of the role culture (rather than biology) plays in the determination of gender role definitions. Indeed, Millett draws a clear distinction between biological sex characteristics and culturally determined gender ones, drawing upon psychological theory that was only just emerging at that time; she argued that binary gender roles are political and that politics consists of “power-structured relationships, arrangements whereby one group of persons is controlled by another” (1990, 23). Millett also described patriarchy as a ideological power structure rather than a natural, biological or religious given; in 1970, these ideas were not widely known, much less widely accepted, and Sexual Politics can take much of the credit, if not for coining them, then for introducing them for the first time to a large audience.
Furthermore, Sexual Politics marks the first time a broadly read publication turned its attention to the sexist attitudes that laced British and American literature. Until this point, much conversation about literature by women involved a discussion of the femininity (or lack thereof) of female writers and how that femininity affected (or diminished) the quality of the writing; male writers, on the other hand, were heretofore not studied as male, but only as writers. Female writers were thought of as writing about female concerns from a feminine point of view, while male writers supposedly wrote about the “universal” human condition from an objective point of view. As a bold and highly necessary corrective, Sexual Politics turned its attention to works by men, focusing on how they are inflected by their authors’ masculinity. In so doing, according to Loren Glass, Millett’s book “marks the beginning of a process whereby feminist literary criticism effectively dislodged masculinity from its privileged access to high literary cachet” (2004, 22). I would go even further to say that, by arguing that masculinity was a societal construct, rather than a biological imperative, Sexual Politics successfully challenged the heretofore popular literary view that authorhood is an inherently male endeavor. For the work the authors Millett critiqued—D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller and Norman Mailer—is notable, not just for its explicit sexual content, but also for its ardent advocacy of male supremacy as being “naturally” ordained.
Millett argued that each of these authors reacted in their writing to the ostensible “crisis of manhood” by portraying heroic male characters convincing (or coercing) women to submit to their “proper” and lesser role. Through detailed, and at times hilarious, analysis, not only did Sexual Politics obliterate the argument that the objectification and degradation of women derives from nature, but it also shattered the notion of the male author as an objective observer of society. This insight comprises one element of the supposed masculinity crisis, for Sexual Politics was on the forefront of making masculinity visible as a construct and, as Sally Robinson has argued, “when dominant masculinity becomes visible, it becomes visible as wounded” (2000, 12). Millett posited that some of the most celebrated male writers were not gods, but rather wounded male human beings imbued with patriarchal blind spots that caused them to attempt in a somewhat panicked manner to prop up the masculine privilege they perceived to be waning. She stripped these emperors of their clothes, exposing them as shivering mortal men with highly masculine (rather than “universal”) perspectives.
In other words, Sexual Politics fostered a conscious consideration of masculinity and masculine privilege, an idea rather comically demonstrated by the reaction of Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in his review of the book for The New York Times. After praising it lavishly and even devoting an unusual two days’ worth of column space to his review, Lehmann-Haupt admits to some misgivings, not so much about the book, but about his own reaction to it. He posits that “a male reader—especially one on such easy terms with conventional marriage and the division of labor endemic to our system as this reviewer is (he earns the bread; she bakes it)…must be perplexed to find himself applauding Millett’s book” (Lehmann-Haupt 1970, “Part I”). Lehmann-Haupt seems incredulous that someone like himself, who reaps so many benefits from the patriarchal system, could find valid an argument against patriarchy. In this review, Lehmann-Haupt unmasks his own masculine privilege, evincing an awareness made possible by the analysis in Sexual Politics. In other words, he admits not only that he benefits from patriarchal structures, but that it was the book Sexual Politics that made him aware of this benefit. Most importantly for my argument, Lehmann-Haupt inserts himself into his review more than once, discussing his personal life, his marriage and even a recent fishing trip, making his personal response to the book somehow relevant to the review of its merits.
Lehmann-Haupt’s self-conscious intrusion into his own review was in one sense invited by Sexual Politics, which has rightly been criticized for engaging in the so-called “intentional fallacy” by equating the authors’ attitudes with those espoused by their work and/or characters. Furthermore, Millett rather irresponsibly engages in a bit of pop-psych Freudian analysis of the authors based on their novels. For example, the scene in which Mellors engages in anal sex with Lady Chatterley serves, according to Millett, to purge Lawrence’s “own sodomous urges” and she speculates that the degradation of women depicted in the work of Henry Miller could be the result of Miller’s broken heart (Millett 1990, 241, 304). To be fair, especially in the case of Miller and Norman Mailer, the novels in question often seem themselves to perform this equation between author and character; as Millett points out, for example: “the major flaw in [Miller’s] oeuvre—too close an identification with the persona, ‘Henry Miller’—always operates insidiously against the likelihood of persuading us that Miller the man is any wiser than Miller the character” (295). In contemporary terms, much of Miller and Mailer’s work is autofictional, as it features a protagonist with the same name as its author: a protagonist who, therefore, simultaneously is and is not the author-figure. Because of her equation of author to character, some of Millett’s critical analysis may seem a bit facile to a contemporary reader, but it is instrumental to my argument about literary self-consciousness to point out that what Millett does in Sexual Politics is to reject the New Critical tenets of viewing the text as a sacrosanct and unified whole. Instead, she considers the texts from a cultural and author-centered perspective. Rather than allowing the author to absent himself from the text in the High Modernist tradition, Millett—for better or worse—shoves him right back into his text, arguing that it is impossible to separate him from it.
And, as I already mentioned, similar authorial intrusion can even be seen in Lehmann-Haupt’s review. By including personal information in his review, Lehmann-Haupt suggests that his own perspective as someone “happily married and participating merrily in the system under Millett’s attack” is somehow relevant to his review of the book and its arguments (1970, “Part II”). This sort of personal revelation is kind of odd in a review of an academic book. However, in this case, Lehmann-Haupt provides this personal information as an admission that he may be unable to review the book objectively: he points out the ways in which his review is colored by his own particular situation (calling his own objectivity into question does not preclude him from actually reviewing the book, of course; rather, he spends two days doing so). That his review might be affected by personal bias is, of course, nothing new, particularly in analyses of books by and about women, which have always suffered from the sexist attitudes of reviewers. What is strikingly new here, however, is that Lehmann-Haupt is made suddenly aware of his biases, confesses them, and even goes so far as to suggest that they might affect his perception of the book (he says he suspects the “guilt of the oppressor was tainting judgment” (“Part II”)). Sexual Politics has made Lehmann-Haupt self-conscious about his own masculinity as a cultural construction, possibly for the first time, since he admits to finding it “one of the most troubling books I have ever read” (“Part I”). Furthermore, once forced into gendered self-consciousness, he inserts himself into his own analysis in decidedly anti-modernist fashion; Lehmann-Haupt’s emergent masculinity crisis seems to unfold on the pages of the review as he feels compelled to include his personal reaction to a challenge to the “naturalness” of his masculine privilege.
I do not wish to exaggerate my case by over-determining a single review of a single academic text. There were, of course, many different responses both to Millett’s book and to the Women’s Movement in general and it is not my purpose here to limn them all. But this particular example demonstrates in microcosm my larger argument that the advent of feminist literary theory, spurred by the Women’s Liberation Movement, was an instrumental catalyst in bringing about a shift in literature from the modernist to the postmodern, particularly the shift from a disavowal of self-conscious authorial intrusion to a fairly whole-hearted embrace of that trope.
Thus, it is my contention that the combination of increased self-awareness of masculine privilege and the resulting “crisis in masculinity” contributed to emergence of the trope of the disempowered male authorial figure who is an increasingly common character in postmodern literature. The autofictional character embodies the ambiguity of the late twentieth-century white-male condition of having a sense of entitlement to power coupled with a sense of that power waning. In other words, the intrusive author-character is simultaneously both empowered—-he created the narrative we read, after all—-and disempowered—-he cannot control his narrative from without and attempts, usually unsuccessfully, to do so from within. As Andreas Huyssen says in relation to the modernist tradition of impersonality, “The male, after all, can easily deny his own subjectivity for the benefit of a higher aesthetic goal, as long as he can take it for granted on an experiential level in everyday life” (1986, 46, emphasis mine). In this more contemporary period, “males” can no longer take that subjectivity for granted, due in large part to the emergence of Second Wave Feminism and feminist and poststructuralist theory. But, as Sally Robinson has pointed out, “there is much symbolic power to be reaped from occupying the social and discursive position of subject-in-crisis” (2000, 9). What emerges, I am arguing, is that one emergent mode of reaping this symbolic power is the manifestation of the white male author no longer willing to deny his own subjectivity in his writing. Instead, he makes it manifest by inserting a characterized version of himself into his narrative in an attempt to reap the symbolic power—whether real or imagined—available to the subject-in-crisis.
Thus, whereas Peter Schwenger argues that “a new self-consciousness may have given rise to a male ‘anxiety of authorship’” (1984, 14), I argue the converse: a male “anxiety of authorship” has given rise to the new self-consciousness manifested in postmodern fiction and typified by the rise of autofiction. For, when white men are portrayed as “wounded,” cultural imperatives emerge to salve those wounds through ironic reversal: “Announcements of a crisis in white masculinity, and a widely evidenced interest in wounded white men, themselves perform the cultural work of recentering white masculinity by decentering it” (Robinson 2000, 12). It is easy to demonstrate how an autofictional approach could serve to recenter white masculinity: if a writer “enters” his novel as a character, claiming that he has lost or is losing control over that narrative, not only does he make himself (or at least, a character-ized version of himself) the thematic center (protagonist) of the novel, but he also foregrounds his creative powers by reasserting his authorial power within the pages of the novel. Autofiction thus recenters the decentered figure of the wounded white male author figure.
For example, in John Barth’s novella Dunyazadiad, the first in his 1972 trilogy Chimera, an unnamed author figure magically appears to Scheherezade, the famous storyteller of 1000 and One Nights, and her sister Dunyazade on the eve of the former’s marriage to King Shahryar whom they fear will surely kill her after their wedding night, as he has one thousand women before. The nameless writer claims to be from Maryland and gives just enough personal detail to make clear that he is indeed a characterized version of “Barth” himself. Dunyazade, the narrator of the story, takes this strange writer for a powerful Genie, and so he certainly must be, for it is this writer character who suggests to Scheherazade that she tell stories to the murderous King Shahryar to postpone her own death. And then it is this author-character who, after consulting his copy of One Thousand and One Nights, appears to the sisters each day to recite for them the story Scheherezade must tell that night. In this story, then, Scheherezade, the world’s most famous storyteller, was actually enabled in that feat by the masculine storytelling power of the “Barth” character—storytelling power enabled by the white male author’s appropriation of ancient indigenous folktales.
When the sisters first meet the “Genie,” he explains that his life, like their King’s, is in turmoil. However, his definition of turmoil is somewhat different from theirs: their King, after being cuckolded, has vowed never to sleep with the same woman twice and to kill each woman he has slept with, while the author is also sleeping with a lot of women (what he calls “a brace of mistresses”) but, unlike King Shahryar, the writer kindly does not harbor “a grudge against womankind” on their behalf (9). The writer-character’s potentially waning masculine power is portrayed quite sensitively here, as the writer worries that he is ageing quickly and is described as “bald as a roc’s egg” (8). He also laments that his writing has not been going as well as it ought, and he is unsure “whether he had abandoned fiction or fiction him” since “only critics, other writers and unwilling students” will read his “artful fiction” (9). Thus, the writer character feels that, for whatever reason, the culture he lives in finds him increasingly irrelevant and he hopes to find relevance—not just for his own work, but for literature writ large—by going back to literature’s origins.
Hence, his appearance to Scheherezade, who is one of fiction’s most accomplished storytellers. In this autofictional tale, a white male author of waning significance attempts to reassert his importance by inserting himself not only into his fiction but into one of the most widely celebrated fictional texts of all time. In exchange for his help, Scheherezade offers her body to the writer, but he declines, saying he is too much in love with the mistress he has chosen from among the bevy he has been enjoying. Thus, he seems magnanimous, agreeing to help Scheherezade merely for the pleasure of doing so, but as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that there is a much more important reward in store for the author figure than yet another female trophy. Significantly, the autofictional author-character thus devised becomes the savior, not only of this tale by rescuing Scheherezade, but of storytelling itself by inserting himself into the telling of her famous tales and, therefore, placing himself at the center of a centuries-old storytelling tradition. So, while he does not claim authorship of the tales of Scheherezade (which are, of course, folktales of various origin), he does assert that his presence in her story is vital to her being able to tell them.
The sex war at the center of Dunyzadiad begins to unfold as the writer explains to Scheherezade the true nature of storytelling: “The teller’s role, he felt, regardless of his actual gender, was essentially masculine, the listener’s or reader’s feminine” (25-6). Thus, although equality in sexual relations is something lovers should strive for “however short of it their histories and temperaments made them fall” (54), true equality in love or storytelling is unlikely. Subsequently, once the writer dictates Scheherezade’s stories to her so that she can tell them, the proper gender roles are restored: the masculinity of storytelling is reaffirmed. It is no surprise then, that directly upon the 1001st day of the storytelling, the unnamed writer reveals that once he began telling stories to Sheherezade, his own writer’s block vanished, allowing him to complete two of the three novellas that will make up the trilogy that is Chimera itself. The reader understands that, once the writer has written the story we are now reading—the Dunyazadiad—his trilogy will be complete, his status as writer restored, his masculinity reasserted. And of course, the significance of all this restoration of power and authority is amplified by the covert but unmistakable connection between the Genie character and John Barth himself. What I mean by that is, the autofictional nature of the novel forces the reader to imagine the idea, if only to immediately discard it, that the Genie is Barth, so that the Genie’s struggles are Barth’s himself. This differentiates novels like Chimera from more mimetic works by authors such as John Updike. For although Updike’s work deals with similar thematic issues, it does so in a purely fictional setting, with no overt metafictional gestures outside itself to the extra-textual world: even though some Updike novels may contain characters that resemble him, these characters are not overtly connected to him and, therefore, he is not directly implicated in their exploits. In the case of Chimera, the author-character is meant to be read as Barth the author, while at the same time, with a winking postmodern slyness, he is also meant to be read as fictional character. The duality of autofictions—the simultaneous fictional and mimetic nature of such works—differentiates them from memoirs like Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior and the memoir-like fictions of Louise Erdrich, Frank Chin and Sherman Alexie.
Autofictions such as Chimera, in which the particularized, characterized figure of the author serves to reify masculine authorial privilege, afford the opportunity to explore more fully one of Kaja Silverman’s side points regarding the portrayal of masculine authorial authority. Silverman argues that authors’ “autobiographical allusions or metacritical pronouncements which encourage us to look for an authorial imperative in their writings or films” are “antipathetic not only to normative masculinity, but to one of its primary buttresses, traditional notions of authorship” (1992, 11). The example cited above actually suggests the opposite: autofictions, or “autobiographical allusions” are most definitely not antipathetic to traditional notions of authorship or to normative masculinity, but rather serve to reify it, no matter how much they seem on the surface to challenge it.
Perhaps the most famous example of the god-like, yet writer-like figure of the autofictional author-character is also one of the earliest: British novelist John Fowles’s 1969 novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Throughout most of the novel, the narrator is highly intrusive in the abstract: in a conversational tone, he instructs the reader in the history and social mores of the Victorian period. Yet, when it comes to the characters about whom he narrates, his knowledge is admittedly not as deep. In Chapter 13, the narrator informs us that although until this point he has been employing the narrative convention that “the novelist stands next to God,” he is unable to predict with complete authority what his characters will think or do. They have free will. Critics have pointed out that it is at this moment that our heretofore seemingly omniscient narrator ceases to be omniscient, as he admits that “knowing it all” is merely something authors pretend to be able to do (Fowles 2004, 95). What is to my mind equally striking but far less often noticed, however, is that the moment that the narrator disavows omniscience is the same moment he emerges as a masculine figure—he ceases to pretend to be a sexless, all-knowing presence and admits to being a man. This instance of authorial intrusion, among the first in an ever-growing list of postmodern autofictions, is also an important example of the explicit gendering of the author as male, marking a clear departure from the essential yet never overtly stated maleness of Modernist authors.
It is no coincidence, then, that this novel involves in-depth depiction of the Victorian era, “An age where woman was sacred; and where you could buy a thirteen-year-old girl for a few pounds—a few shillings, if you wanted her for only an hour or two” (266). In important ways, The French Lieutenant’s Woman combines Victorian and postmodern sensibilities. It depicts of an era when women’s movements and prospects were highly regulated, yet women were not valued members of society, but it depicts that era using the emergent literary traditions of an era in which ideas about women’s roles and abilities were undergoing rapid, almost revolutionary transformation. For this reason, it makes sense that the narrator is a man who admits to having a man’s limited perspective, saying “Modern women like Sarah [the French Lieutenant’s woman] exist, and I have never understood them” (95). The narrator cannot understand a woman like Sarah who prefers to be shunned by society rather than join it, who runs from a man who wants to marry her in order to live a life independent and alone: an anachronistically “liberated” woman acts as the stumbling block for the author-character’s omniscience, for he simply cannot figure out what she wants nor predict what she will do. In order to admit this lack of knowledge to his readers, the narrator descends from the clouds of omniscience and takes on the form of a mere mortal man.
And, in the much-cited Chapter 5, the author-character does this literally, taking on physical form and entering the train on which Sarah’s lover Charles is a passenger. At first, he merely stares at Charles, making him uncomfortable, but in a later chapter, the writer-character—who literary critics refer to as the “impresario”—observes the action of the novel. After one potential ending for the novel unfolds, the impresario turns back his watch fifteen minutes to allow an alternate and very different ending to occur. As will be the case in much autofiction, this scene simultaneously highlights the considerable creative power of that author to control his characters and construct the narrative, while at the same time it makes visible the authorial figure behind the didactic narrative voice, demonstrating that this creative force is, in fact, just a powerful man, not an omniscient god.
Or, in the case of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, not even a particularly powerful man. Vonnegut’s 1973 novel, contains some material Vonnegut originally planned to include in his 1969 masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five, but which he excised and transformed into a discrete novel in its own right. In Breakfast of Champions, the writer of the novel enters as a character. Although this character is never named, we know he must represent “Vonnegut,” since he claims to have invented all the other characters, including Kilgore Trout, a figure who had appeared in two earlier Vonnegut novels and continues to appear in several other Vonnegut works.
Breakfast of Champions is distinct among Vonnegut’s work because it evinces an intensely personal perspective, partly enabled by the inclusion of the autofictional author-character. So, amidst pithy and satirically charged statements such as calling Christopher Columbus a “sea pirate” and the “Star Spangled Banner” “gibberish sprinkled with question marks,” (1991, 10, 8) are startling admissions that the author-character has been taking medication for depression, is concerned he might be schizophrenic, and that he has considered suicide. This book, he tells us, represents his attempt to “clear my head of all the junk in there” in an effort to preserve his sanity (5). At the beginning of the novel, however, this effort is not going well, as the author claims: “I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can’t live without a culture anymore” (5). This admission is partly a comment upon the author-character’s mental state, and partly a criticism of late 1960s American culture. This “clearing of the head,” he argues, is “something most white Americans, and nonwhite Americans who imitate white Americans should do. The things other people have put into my head, at any rate, do not fit together nicely, are often useless and ugly” (5). In a rather striking move, considering that this novel was published in 1973, the author-character evinces an awareness of his status as a white man, as well as an awareness that this status has resulted in his head being full of useless and ugly things that have affected his perspective and which should be cleared out. Thus, in this novel, the presence of the author-character has transformed the typical detached and subtly ironic Vonnegut narrator into a highly confessional and troubled figure indeed. There are hints of this type of author-character in Slaughterhouse-Five, since the two novels were once meant to be a single text, however, it is in Breakfast of Champions that the intrusive authorial narrator becomes a fully realized autofictional character.
What I mean to say is that in Breakfast of Champions, “Vonnegut” the author steps into his novel at the end to converse with his characters, all the while commenting narratorially on his limited ability to control their actions and fates. “Vonnegut” tells us that he invented Kilgore Trout and “I made him snaggle-toothed. I gave him hair, but I turned it white” and “I had given him a life not worth living, but I had also given him an iron will to live” (32, 72). “Vonnegut’s” mission in this novel, he says, is to make his existence known to Kilgore Trout: to tell his most famous creation that he is a creation and that “Vonnegut” is his creator. Then, he will set Trout free. He tells Trout: “I am approaching my fiftieth birthday, Mr. Trout…I am cleansing and renewing myself for the very different sorts of years to come. Under similar spiritual conditions, Count Tolstoi freed his serfs. Thomas Jefferson freed his slaves. I am going to set at liberty all the literary characters who have served me so loyally during my writing career. You are the only one I am telling” (301).
At first blush, this seems a quite blatant assertion of authorial power: characters equated to slaves or serfs over whom “Vonnegut” has the power of life and death, freedom and servitude. And indeed, throughout the novel “Vonnegut” repeatedly demonstrates that power, pointing it out to the reader as he makes phones ring, causes characters to say things, and claims that he “was on a par with the Creator of the Universe” (205). On the other hand, much like Fowles’s impresario, “Vonnegut” informs us that this control is not absolute. Although he created his characters, “I could only guide their movements approximately…It wasn’t as though I was connected to them by steel wires. It was more as though I was connected to them by stale rubberbands” (207). In other words, these characters, like those in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, have been endowed by their creator with free will. When he finally meets Kilgore Trout, a moment “Vonnegut” had been anticipating highly, the meeting does not go well, largely because “Vonnegut” did not realize that one of his characters, a large dog, was bearing down on him, ready to bite. Injured, “Vonnegut” tries to turn on his car’s lights so Trout can see his face and instead turns on the windshield wipers. These mishaps serve to highlight the vast difference between “Vonnegut” and the “Creator of the Universe.” His authorial power is severely limited and even when he steps into the novel he is still no better able to assert control.
Furthermore, as he has already told us, “Vonnegut” is in crisis, worried he is losing his mind, as he tells himself: “This is a very bad book you’re writing….You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did” (198). This novel, meant to clear his head of all the errant images that have been troubling him, is not having the desired effect on its author: it is not restoring his sense of sanity. What finally does bring “Vonnegut” to a form of psychic healing (to allow him, in his words, to be “reborn”) is the exchange he overhears between an arrogant artist character named Rabo Karabekian and citizens of the town that has just paid an exorbitant price for one of his paintings. During the course of the argument, Karabekian intones: “Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery” (226). And it is this statement that brings “Vonnegut” to the epiphany he has needed. “Vonnegut” says: “I did not expect Rabo Karabekian to rescue me. I had created him, and he was in my opinion a vain and weak and trashy man, no artist at all. But it is Rabo Karabekian who made me the serene Earthling which I am today” (225). It is his characters, saying unexpected things, which brings “Vonnegut” out of crisis: Breakfast of Champions portrays “Vonnegut” as a minimally powerful author-character. Conversely, however, the authorial prowess of Vonnegut sans scare quotes, Vonnegut the actual extra-textual author of Breakfast of Champions, is highlighted and even celebrated: Vonnegut has, through his writing, cured “Vonnegut” of depression. In this sense, Breakfast of Champions demonstrates one of the central paradoxes of autofiction: by depicting a white male author-character in a crisis of waning creative power, the novel draws attention to the still-powerful and highly creative actual author who wrote the entire story. Breakfast of Champions paradoxically restores and reasserts authorial authority by poignantly depicting the loss of that authority.
These assertions of authorial authority have remained at the forefront of much contemporary fiction, exemplified by the widespread proliferation of autofiction by white male authors. While autofiction remains inflected by the same wrangling for and doubts about masculine privilege, more recent examples of the genre evince an awareness of gender issues than previous works did. For example, Richard Powers’s 1995 autofiction Galatea 2.2 charts the progress of a male author who comes to realize the extent to which his writing represents an appropriation of women’s stories. Galatea 2.2 features novelist “Richard Powers” or “Rick,” who is granted a year-long residency at the University of Illinois in Urbana, the place where ten years earlier he had earned his Masters in Literature. He returns to town alone, having just broken up with a long-time girlfriend, and finishes his fourth novel. After several abortive attempts to begin a fifth novel, “Rick” gets involved in a project developed by a group of cognitive scientists trying to build a computer construct that can mimic human consciousness well enough to fool someone into thinking it is human. The scientists want to build a consciousness that can pretend to be a graduate student of literature, so it becomes “Rick’s” job to “teach” the computer about literature by reading and talking to it.
The novel consists of that story intertwined with flashbacks about “Rick’s” recently ended relationship and it eventually becomes clear that his writer’s block stems from that break-up. His ex-girlfriend, C., had been the inspiration, and at key times the source, of material for his previous novels. It is unclear whether he can write a novel without her. As the story progresses, “Rick” turns his attention away from his writer’s block and toward the computer construct, whom he has gendered female and named “Helen” and whom he comes to consider a sort of daughter; at times he believes that Helen may even exhibit actual consciousness, rather than a convincing simulation thereof. “Rick” also falls in love with “A.”, a graduate student he has met only briefly but fantasizes about frequently, dreaming of a long-term relationship with her.
By the end of the book, both relationships are shattered: “A.” spurns his advances and Helen shuts down unexpectedly, either from an irreparable glitch or from despair at not being fully human. “Rick” is suddenly stripped of his female companions but, now imbued with their stories, finds his writer’s block lifted: the novel ends with him searching for a keyboard on which to begin, ostensibly, the novel we are reading. Like the writer in Dunyazadiad, “Rick” feeds off the stories of women in order to keep his own writing going; becoming the Pygmalion the title implies, “Rick” constructs Helen into the being he needs, not for her own sake, but for his own writerly use. Helen’s “death,” is the sacrifice necessary for her to serve as his muse. Unlike Dunyazadiad, however, Galatea 2.2 is often critical of “Rick’s” actions, a fact made clear through the title of the novel and through moments of self-awareness that “Rick” experiences. For example, when he achieves success as a novelist by writing a book about C.’s ancestors, he realizes that, rather than giving C. a gift, he has usurped something that was hers: “the only thing she’d ever wanted was the thing I took away by doing for her” (Powers 1995, 278). The novel is replete with such self-criticism, as “Rick” looks back on his relationships—with C., Helen and even with A.—and sees where he was blind to what they really needed because he was too busy imposing his own needs upon them. Perhaps the self-awareness of the author-character in evidence here marks the evolution in thinking about gender relationships from the time of Barth’s book, published in 1972, to Powers’s from 1995.
A similar kind of charactorial self-criticism is a fundamental characteristic of the autofiction of Philip Roth. Indeed, perhaps no contemporary American writer has focused more intently on the potentials and pitfalls of authorship than Roth. Arguably, his entire career has been a chronicle of the various travails an author faces when his work is construed (or misconstrued, depending on one’s opinion) as aligning too closely with his actual life. For my purposes, I am not interested in the question that has fascinated so many critics before me of how closely Roth’s personal life hews to that of his characters and, subsequently, how much of his work is “fiction” and how much is “true.” In other words, I do not care much about Roth’s actual life. Rather, I want to focus on one instances in one of Roth’s novels which plays overtly with that line between truth and fiction by depicting a character named “Philip”: I want to focus on Roth’s autofiction. The first of these novels—Deception from 1990—is also the most subtle, for the protagonist is only referred to twice as “Philip.” But, as will be seen, these references have serious repercussions and serve as the crux of the novel as well, perhaps, as the catalyst for the more overt autofictions Roth would write subsequently.
Deception is framed as a series of conversations between a writer (later identified as “Philip”) and various others, mostly women. The primary conversations take place between the writer and a lover “Maria” who comes to see him in his studio, unbeknownst to the writer’s wife. They discuss how the writer has taken her words and put them in the mouth of a character in one of his novels, a fact she does not appreciate, as she is often “recognized” in the novel by friends who have read it and could potentially be recognized by her own husband, were he ever to read the novel in question. She chides “Philip” for taking down her words exactly as she says them and then transcribing them into his novel, particularly since he often rails against reviewers who criticize him for being a fiction writer who never actually makes anything up (Deception 1997, 200). “Philip” counters that he both did and did not create her character: “You also exist and also I made you up” (200). In this sense, “Philip” defends his right to mold events and people from his life into fiction in whatever way he sees fit and he asserts his creative prerogative to make a character out of a real person.
It is significant to my argument that “Philip” defends this right from a woman who challenges it. Another female challenge to his authorial authority comes from his wife, who finds the notebook into which he has transcribed the conversations with Maria and wonders whether they are fictional or real. There are several charges “Philip” must fend off here. First, to convince his wife he is not actually cheating on her, he claims that the notebooks represent his fantasies about having a love affair with a character of his own creation. His wife then points out that if he publishes these conversations, she will be humiliated because readers will not realize that the conversations are fictional. To this, “Philip” responds: “They generally don’t, so what difference does that make? I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography, I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction, so since I’m so dim and they’re so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn’t” (183). Here, “Philip” rather deftly shifts the conversation from being between him and his wife to one between him and his readers. As he did with Maria, he glosses over the potential damage his writing might do to the real women in his life, instead staunchly defending his right as an author to use the women as fodder for his writing.
Tellingly, a male friend, in another depicted conversation, accuses “Philip” of just that: “You are a treacherous bastard who cannot resist a narrative even from the wife of his refugee friend. The stronger the narrative impulse in her, the more captivated you are….You like it best when these soulful women can’t actually tell their own tales but struggle for access to their story…Every woman a fuck, every fuck a Scheherazade” (87-8). Just as the writer in Dunyazadiad, “Philip” appropriates the stories of women and turns them to his own ends. The difference, of course, between Chimera and Deception is the almost twenty years that separate their publication. The writer in Chimera exhibits no compunction in absorbing the sisters’ stories and making them his own, while Deception resembles Galatea 2.2 by having at least one character express his recognition of this absorption is for what it is: the appropriation of the stories of women. Within the novel, “Philip” is repeatedly called out for this appropriation and tries to justify it to his friend, his lover and his wife. To my mind, “Phillip’s” various assertions of male authorial privilege comprise the deceptions at the heart of Deception.
Autofiction makes literal the metaphorical “I” that Woolf senses in men’s literature in A Room of One’s Own for, while it has become a major staple in contemporary American fiction, it continues to be written predominantly by white men. As I have argued, the proliferation of postmodern autofiction arises in some respects from the increasing awareness of gender brought about by the second-wave feminist movement. This link between postmodern self-consciousness and so-called “sex-consciousness” has rarely if ever been drawn, but autofiction serves as an ideal vehicle through which to chart this connection and to gauge an increasing awareness of these gender issues in contemporary literature. By focusing on autofiction, I have gestured toward a larger argument about the role of Second Wave feminism in fomenting postmodern literary self-consciousness. I have sketched out this connection here, opening the door for what I hope will be a productive continued conversation.
- Alter, Robert. Partial Magic: The Novel as a Self-Conscious Genre. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.
- Barth, John. Chimera. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1972.
- Connell, R.W., Raewyn Connell. Masculinities. University of California Press, 1995.
- Doubrovsky, Serge. “Autofiction.” Auto/Fiction 1.1 (2013): i-ii.
- Ferrebe, Alice. Masculnity in Male-Authored Fiction 1950-2000. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
- Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman . London: Vintage, 2004.
- Genette, Gerard. Fiction & Diction. Catherine Porter, trans. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1993.
- Glass, Loren Daniel. Authors, Inc.: Literary Celebrity in the Modern United States, 1880-1980. New York: NYU Press, 2004.
- Hutcheon, Linda. Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1980.
- Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986.
- Kimmel, Michael. Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era. New York: Nation Books, 2013.
- Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. “He and She—I.” The New York Times. August 5, 1970: 33.
- -------. “He and She—II.” The New York Times. August 6, 1970: 31.
- Millett, Kate. Sexual Politics. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990. Originally published 1970.
- Powers, Richard. Galatea 2.2. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
- Savran, David. Taking It Like a Man: White Masculinity, Masochism, and Contemporary American Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1998.
- Schwenger, Peter. Phallic Critiques: Masculinity and Twentieth-Century Literature. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984. Silverman,
- Kaja. Male Subjectivity at the Margins. New York: Routledge, 1992.
- Robinson, Sally. Marked Men: White Masculinity in Crisis. New York: Columbia UP, 2000.
- Rosen, David. The Changing Fictions of Masculinity. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
- Roth, Philip. Deception. New York: Vintage, 1997. Originally published 1990.
- Vonnegut, Kurt. Breakfast of Champions Or Goodbye Blue Monday. New York: Random House, 1973.
- “Who’s Come a Long Way, Baby?” Time Magazine (Aug. 31, 1970): 16-21.
- Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1995. First published 1929.
- Robert Siegle has essentially equated these two terms, saying that both use metaphors of selfhood and consciousness that are typically employed in psychological rather than literary contexts (3). Robert Siegle. The Politics of Reflexivity: Narrative and the Constitutive Poetics of Culture. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.
- For example, see: Phillip Brian Harper. Framing the Margins: The Social Logic of Postmodern Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1994. and: Enrique Dussel. “Beyond Eurocentrism: The World-System and the Limits of Modernity.” In The Cultures of Globalization. Fredric Jameson and Masao Miyoshi, eds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998. 3-31.
- The term “autofiction” was originally coined in 1977 by French writer Serge Doubrovsky, but has for years been the subject of vigorous debate, particularly in French literary circles. Doubrovksy himself has repeatedly reiterated (and in the process, updated) his definition, demonstrating how difficult a term it is to pin down in any definitive way. Originally, on the back cover of his novel Fils, Doubrovsky defined autofiction this way: “Fiction, of facts and events strictly real, if you prefer, autofiction, where the language of adventure has been entrusted to the adventure of language in its total freedom” (Doubrovsky i, translation Doubrovsky’s). However, this initial iteration of the term “autofiction” much more closely resembles the definition, in American parlance anyway, of the term “memoir.” Thus, what is defined in France as an autofiction is generally published under the rubric of “novel,” while the same kind of fact-based text in the U.S. would probably be deemed a memoir. For this reason, I find Gerard Genette’s conceptualization of autofiction more relevant to American fiction than Doubrovsky’s: Genette defines autofiction as a narrative helmed by a characterized version of the author who is by design partly based on biographical fact, but also admittedly—sometimes flamboyantly—fictional. “True autofictions,” according to Genette, are “authentically fictional,” because the author implies (or states): “I, the author, am going to tell you a story of which I am the hero but which never happened to me” (Fiction 77, 76, emphasis Genette’s). It is that “never happened to me” part of the sentence that differentiates autofiction (as Genette defines it) from memoir, as traditionally conceived.
- This attitude is perhaps typified by novels such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) in which a group of white male patients in a psychiatric hospital are victimized by a powerful female nurse and her African-American orderlies, or The Stepford Wives (1972) in which a group of aggrieved white suburban men resist the Women’s Movement by replacing their wives with subservient animatronic robots.
- Susan Faludi. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. New York: Crown Publishers, 1991.
- A variety of compelling arguments about the repercussions to literature of the masculinity crisis have already been made. For example, Rita Felski argues that the repudiation of femininity became one of the central metaphors of Modernism; Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar trace the crisis of Modernism and Modernist art and literature to an “ongoing battle of the sexes that was set in motion by the late nineteenth-century rise of feminism” (xii); and Kathleen Fitzpatrick evaluates the potential obsolescence of the novel in the age of television through its effect on mostly male-authored works.
- A Modernist author, Jonathan Goldman argues, wanted to be viewed “as not only the art object par excellence, but also the master choreographer of the culture that contains him as such an object” (7); however, he goes on to say point out that “modernist technique conceives of the author as an idealized, incorporeal entity” (11).
- Sexual Politics constituted a part of Millett’s Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia.
- Of course, this review fails to take into account the centuries of feminist philosophy that presaged Millett’s book and even seems unaware of the 1929 publication of A Room of One’s Own, or Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) or even Betty Friedan’s influential The Feminine Mystique from 1963. I suppose, however, that the last would fall into this reviewer’s category of “intuitive passion.”
- Millett’s focus on male writers differentiates that book from much of the feminist literary criticism that immediately followed, which tended to focus primarily on work by women in an effort to trace a distinctive female literary tradition; some of these include Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Nina Baym, Carolyn Heilbrun and Judith Fetterley, to name only a few.
- Millett’s book made enough of an impression upon its publication that the entire March, 1971 issue of Harper’s was subsequently devoted to Norman Mailer’s response. Later published in book form as The Prisoner of Sex, the article makes Mailer’s case that, while some aspects of “Women’s Liberation” deserve attention, essential gender roles are indeed natural: “Women must have their rights to a life which would allow them to look for a mate. And there would be no free search until she was liberated” (232-3). But it is that search for a mate in order to procreate that must be the primary function of a woman’s life: “finally a day had to come when women shattered the pearl of their love for pristine and feminine will and found the man, yes that man in the million who could become the point of the seed which would give an egg back to nature, and let the woman return with a babe who came from the root of God’s desire” (233-4).
- It is striking as well, that in the review’s second part, Lehmann-Haupt ultimately faults the book for being “too masculine” (“Part II”).
- This rhetorical move foreshadows the emergence around this time period of Feminist Standpoint Theory.
- This point is aptly demonstrated by the effect the revelation of Millett’s bisexuality had on her reputation as a feminist leader. A 1970 Time Magazine article was fairly spot-on when it suggested that "[t]he disclosure is bound to discredit her as a spokeswoman for her cause, cast further doubt on her theories, and reinforce the views of those skeptics which routinely dismiss all liberationists as lesbians" (50). Millett’s personal life thus supposedly impugns not only her efficacy as a leader, but her theories as well, reflecting a different standard than the one male thinkers were typically subjected to at this time. “Women’s Lib: A Second Look.” Time. (14 December 1970): 50
- Vonnegut raises this awareness throughout the novel by mentioning identifying a character’s race when he/she is introduced, even if that character is white. This practice is unusual for white writers even today and is evidence of a race consciousness that is far ahead of its time.
- Certainly no other American author has delved as deeply into autofiction, in that three of Roth’s novels feature protagonists who share his name: Deception, Operation Shylock and The Plot Against America.
- Although it is not really relevant to my argument, it is interesting to note that the “lover” here is probably based upon British novelist Janet Hobhouse, who is widely believed to be the model for “Maria,” a character both in Deception and in Roth’s 1986 novel The Counterlife. As I said earlier, however, it is of less interest to me to tease out these connections and more relevant to my argument to discern what effect the autofictional character has on the reading experience.
- She is not named, but one could assume that the wife is modeled on British actress Claire Bloom, to whom Roth was married at this time.