A Rose For Emily by William Faulkner

A Rose For Emily William Faulkner

“A Rose For Emily” is a short story by Mississippi born William Faulkner, first published 1930. I didn’t know of the short story when I listened to the podcast Shit Town.

The theme song to Shit Town is A Rose For Emily by The Zombies. There’s exists a disturbing ironic distance between the sadness of the narrative and the upbeat tune. Now I’ve read the short story and also listened to the podcast, I can see why this song was chosen.

As for the short story itself, “A Rose For Emily” is often returned as an excellent example of naturalism.

William Faulkner‘s A Rose for Emily, a story about a woman who killed her lover, is considered an example of a narrative within the naturalism category. This story, which also used Gothic elements, presented a tale that highlighted the extraordinary and excessive features in human nature and the social environment that influences them. The protagonist, Miss Emily, was forced to lead an isolated life, and that — combined with her mental illness — made insanity her inevitable fate. The environment in the forms of a class structure based on slavery and social change, together with heredity, represented the forces beyond her control.

Wikipedia, Naturalism

FEATURES OF LITERARY NATURALISM

  • Naturalism is a movement from late 1800s to early 1900s.
  • Realism came after Romanticism. (See Wikipedia’s list of literary movements.) Naturalism is basically ‘extreme realism’.
  • Naturalism is all about exploring common values of the ordinary individual, whereas movements which came before included a lot of symbolism, idealism and even supernatural treatment.
  • In naturalism there’s an emphasis on the setting and an exploration of how setting shapes character.
  • Naturalism is based around the idea that science (rather than supernatural explanations) account for all social phenomena.
  • Darwin pretty much changed everything, and naturalism is his influence on art.
  • How do humans interact with nature to become who we are? Naturalist writers explored this question via stories about: natural law, evolution, atavism, and degeneration.
  • We’re now in a ‘post-naturalism’ literary period,

POST GOTHIC

Rather than a ‘gothic‘ tale per se, “A Rose For Emily” might better be described as a callback to a twisted Southern Gothic tale. Faulkner borrowed tropes from this movement without belonging to this earlier movement himself.

STORYWORLD OF “A ROSE FOR EMILY”

Emily’s house is your classic house-as-character. Faulkner uses words that more ‘correctly’ describe a human, not an edifice.

It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps—an eyesore among eyesores. And now Miss Emily had gone to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in the cedar-bemused cemetery among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the big struggle of Jefferson.

Faulkner’s famous description of that house is known as dialectical montage — a technique which emphasises, rather than hides, the discontinuity between one image and another. Montage tends to emphasise connections rather than discontinuities, but not this kind. Dialectical = concerned with or acting through opposing forces.

Note that we learn about Emily’s house before we learn about Emily. Emily = her house.

The local history of this Deep South town is the Civil War, the ghost of “A Rose For Emily”. The war is off the page, but influential nonetheless.

At least one scholar has placed Jefferson in Faulkner’s native Mississippi due to an obscure reference. The narrator mentions many cedars in the cemetery. There are no true cedars in North America, but the misnamed Atlantic White cedar, which is actually a cypress, is native and common to Mississippi. There are few to none Atlantic White cedars in the neighboring states.

TV Tropes

Faulkner talks about Emily’s lineage — her great aunt and so on, and achieves what Annie Proulx also aims for in her short stories — to paint a portrait of a collection of people living in a community, not just one individual. This is based on the idea that individuals never exist in isolation and are therefore pretty uninteresting on their own.

Faulkner plays around with time as if it doesn’t move like an arrow through space. Miss Emily cuts her hair short, ‘making her look like a girl’ once more.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “A ROSE FOR EMILY”

A lot has been said about the narration of “A Rose For Emily”, because it is a stand-out example of narration which moves seamlessly from multiple perspective to single. Peter Selgin wrote more about that here, in a guide for writers.

SHORTCOMING

The story opens with Faulkner’s narrator describing men as feeling the appropriate emotions around any dead person (respectful affection) and the women as feeling the inappropriate, unfeeling state of ‘curiosity to see the inside of her house’. Immediately I feel more empathy for the men, but also a little irritated at the gender binary summary. Is this going to be an irritating woman-hating tale? This is literally the first I’ve ever read of Faulkner.

I don’t dig far before finding a thesis which suggests Faulkner wrote women according to four main types:

  1. The Unvanquished — Black and white women who kept the plantations going during the Civil War, or those who held their families together amid disruption.
  2. Ghosts — De-sexed women, usually spinsters, who have lived the greater part of their lives as barren ‘ladies’. Their puritanical backgrounds have caused them to live these unnatural and tragic lives.
  3. Earth Mothers — women who scorn traditional codes and allow their primitive female urges to take over.
  4. Rebels — The inverse of the chaste Southern lady. These women openly reject Southern ideals of womanhood.

Each of these types has her own stock shortcoming. Emily is clearly depicted as belonging to the second category of Faulkner’s women. But she is revealed to be a Rebel.

That was two years after her father’s death and a short time after her sweetheart—the one we believed would marry her — had deserted her. After her father’s death she went out very little; after her sweetheart went away, people hardly saw her at all.

Faulkner is writing a variation of the Madwoman In The Attic trope:

As they recrossed the lawn, a window that had been dark was lighted and Miss Emily sat in it, the light behind her, and her upright torso motionless as that of an idol.  […] We did not say she was crazy then.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins is another example of this trope.

There is a full list of tropes used in “A Rose For Emily” at TV Tropes.

But is Emily the main character? The town is the main character really. Emily is an interesting artifact of it. Their shortcoming is that they crave drama, pretend to themselves that they care when they’re really just curious. Worst, their curiosity is misplaced. The narrator describes Emily as looking like an ‘idol’ (as in a statue that doesn’t move) without realising that Emily has created an actual statue of her own. The townsfolk have misjudged and underestimated this woman, thinking her pathetic and ‘mad’ when really she is dangerous and Machiavellian.

DESIRE

It’s more about what Emily does not want.

She does not want to leave her house. She’s a shut-in. She does not want to pay her taxes. We can safely assume she can’t at this stage.

OPPONENT

The new aldermen and mayor, who want Emily to start paying her taxes.

The townspeople want her place cleaned up because it smells bad.

PLAN

Four men break into Emily’s house and scatter lime to get rid of the smell. This does get rid of the smell and they consider their job done. They don’t look beneath the surface, to find whatever’s making that smell.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle scene is in section five, which returns to the beginning of the tale (with seconds two, three and four existing as backstory).  The townspeople make the gruesome discovery.

ANAGNORISIS

Not all horror has to be directly bloody or violent with its language. For example, William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” is a good example of a violent story which avoids being directly bloody and violent. Faulkner offers subtle cues and creates an air of mystery without truly revealing Emily’s dark side until the end of the tale—

The man himself lay in the bed. For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin. The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him. What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust.

In this passage, Faulkner tells the audience what happened to a man that disappeared from Emily’s town (and the story) years before. He has been found—or rather, his skeleton, which is subtly revealed through the language: a “fleshless grin.” The reader learns that there has been a murder, who the murderer is, and that Emily is more disturbed than anyone ever could have imagined.

The plot reveal also explains the title. The ‘rose’ in the title is the gay man who Emily took for herself, killing him for her own purposes.

NEW SITUATION

With her Black servant escaped and Emily herself dead, all that’s left of the family is a good story for the townsfolk to tell and retell over and over. The storyteller narrator may have embellished parts of it, but we’ll never know.

Dump Junk by Annie Proulx

dump junk annie proulx

“Dump Junk” is a short story by Annie Proulx, included in the Bad Dirt collection. This is a revisioned fairytale based on The Magic Porridge Pot and similar.

Proulx’s shorts stories in many ways allude to, cite, and subvert a number of myths, legends, fairy tales, and folktales converging as common cultural patrimony. Annie Proulx’s short stories in many ways allude to, cite, and subvert a number of myths, legends, fairy tales, and folktales converging as common cultural patrimony.

Benedicte Meilon, The Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature edited by Stephanie Durrans

STORYWORLD OF “DUMP JUNK”

All of these stories are set in Wyoming. Sometimes Proulx makes use of a realworld town, other times she zooms us in as far as the county but invents a fictional town. This is one of those times: Fremont County, Wyoming is a real place (population 40,000); the town of Firecracker appears to be fictional.

The entire county is the size of Vermont, but Vermont has a lot more people packed into it, with a population of 623,000.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “DUMP JUNK”

A woman dies and her children sort out her junk. Because the son and daughter don’t get on, the men do the garage and the women sort out the house. In the process, we learn two backstories in particular: the backstory of Max Stifle, and that of Christina, the daughter. We also learn by extension a bit about Vivian, with emphasis on how poverty-stricken they were ‘in the beginning’.

Sorting out a houseful of possessions is a sobering task many adult children must do at some point, and it often (inevitably? always?) reveals something new about the dead parent’s life. No surprise, this life stage is oft mined by storytellers. Stories are about surprise, and the revelation of a secret = excellent surprise.

This plot was used by Robert James Waller in Bridges of Madison County (which Stephen King holds up as an example of bad writing, by the by).

But because this is Annie Proulx, there will be more to “Dump Junk” than the same-old, same-old ‘adult child learns her parent had hidden depths and a sexual side after all’ trope. Sure enough this one takes a turn. In a system of primogeniture, the son, Bobcat inherits the house. Christina, being a daughter, inherits the kettle (her mother’s prized possession) and everything in the house. Since the house is full of junk and the kettle leaks, Christina has inherited nothing.

But “Dump Junk” takes a sudden turn in genre when Christina wishes her parents had invested in a microwave, and then a microwave is noticed, still in its box. She wishes the old jalopy would start outside. She wishes for a vodka and orange—it appears in the fridge. Proulx is making use of the Rule of Three, in which three times makes a pattern. That’s when the mystery is solved.

Turns out the leaky kettle has magical qualities and can grant wishes. I’ve heard writing advice to the effect of, “Well, if you’re writing fantasy, don’t spring it on the reader. Make sure the reader knows from the first few pages what to expect from the setting.” Implication being: you won’t find the right readers if readers don’t know what genre they’re getting into.

If Proulx ever heard that advice, I doubt she sat up straight. Alongside another fairytale revisioning set on a farm, “The Bunchgrass End Of The World“, this story, “Dump Junk”, starts out as realism. Fairytale magic is sprung upon us with no warning, especially given the story’s place in the rest of the collection.

“Dump Junk” ends in tragedy, because casual wishes work as well as carefully considered ones.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “DUMP JUNK”

“Dump Junk” is a Wyoming re-casting of the Sweet Porridge category of fairytales, in which a receptacle grants the wish of excess in a time of poverty. (I took a close look at The Magic Porridge Pot in this post.) Such tales are classified by Aarne-Thompson as 565.

This category of tale can be seen across time and across cultures. It starts out as a wish fulfilment fantasy but the rule is that it ends with a moral lesson about greed. China gave us stories about a boy with a magic brush, who could paint anything. These are similar. In that case, the boy uses the brush to conquer someone else’s greed. (The Magical Life Of Mr Renny is a picture book riff on that classic tale.)

Annie Proulx isn’t into moral lessons. In contrast, she’s known as a ‘fatalistic’ writer. The term ‘geographical determinism’ is often used.  “It is what it is. Doesn’t matter what you do, you’re a product of your time and place.”

At first a fairytale plot seems to fly in the face of fatalism. If some people have access to a genie, doesn’t that mean they’ve taken control of their poverty-stricken fate? On reflection, this sort of fairytale is exactly in line with Proulx’s world view. Across her stories humans behave in predictable ways, shaped by whatever is available to us in our environment. Access to wealth doesn’t necessarily help people rise up. We’re all at the mercy of some power greater than ourselves, though not in the religious sense. Instead, Proulx makes use of vast geography to turn humans into highly fallible miniatures.

I like stories with three generations visible. Geography, geology, climate, weather, the deep past, immediate events, shape the characters and partly determines what happens to them… The characters in my novels pick their ways through the chaos of change. The present is always pasted on layers of the past.

Annie Proulx

In “Dump Junk” Proulx makes use of not three but four generations to emphasise the minuscule length of a single human life.

SHORTCOMING

The Stifles are a family with major, long-standing internal problems.

Proulx describes Bobcat and Christina’s relationship in a matter-of-fact way, but any man who strangles women in arguments needs to be taken seriously. Strangulation is the most reliable precursor to subsequent murder. Not only that, strangulation (without loss of life) very often results in lifelong injury to the throat area. This is why some governments have started to take choking seriously. New Zealand instituted a new non-fatal strangulation offence specifically around choking and suffocation, and the offence can now carry seven years’ imprisonment.

Bobcat has probably inherited these attitudes from his father, who spent much of his life in the ‘caring’ profession of teaching, but garnered a reputation for maimed hands among the boys he taught shop to. Bobcat remembers his father for his criticisms. Terrible things happened in his classes while Max Stifle was in the toilet, when he should’ve been supervising his unruly students.

The first thing that strikes me about this family is how unusual it is that Max and Vivian lived so long. Most times, only people with money and education make it to over 100. Sixties and seventies is a more common period in which to die. In hindsight, of course, we can deduce that Max and Vivian made the decision to live til 100 each. It took them a further year or two to actually decide to die.

DESIRE

Bobcat and Christina want to clean up their parents’ house as quickly as possible and hightail on out of there. But when the mystery develops, of course Christina wants to find out the truth.

OPPONENT

It helps story conflict that Bobcat and Christina dislike each other a lot. But opposition usually works best if it’s more complicated than simple, long-standing animosity. If there’s no big, outside opposition (e.g. a natural disaster, a supernatural monster), it’s a good idea to introduce a mystery. Then, the mystery functions as opposition.

The mystery here: Why did Vivian Stifle live as long as she did, but suddenly stop doing a lot of the things she used to do? The women can tell exactly when she stopped collecting bags, when she stopped collecting recipes.

Patsy pulled a grocery receipt from one of the sacks on top of the pile. “Actually I think she stopped somewhere along the line. Look at the date – it’s 1954. She must have stopped back then.” She pulled out a sack near the bottom and found a handwritten grocery slip for a hundred pounds each of flour and sugar dated 1924. The amount paid was small as there was a notation that she had brought in six dozen fresh eggs to trade against her purchases.

Out in the shed, their son wonders how Max and Vivian managed to live when they had nothing to live on? He goes through the possibilities. Did they inherit from somewhere? Do they have a secret stash?

PLAN

The initial plan is to divide by gender and get the house and garage sorted quickly.

When Christina discovers the iron teakettle is magic, she tests it out. Then she uses it knowingly.

BIG STRUGGLE

Which is the Battle scene? Sometimes it’s not obvious. And I don’t think it’s obvious here, but whatever it is, it’ll be the bit that comes right before the Anagnorisis. Even this isn’t always easy, because in a story like this, who’s the star?

I believe the “Battle” is the low-key scene in which Christina takes the kettle out to her brother. She’s about to tell him what it can do, but he speaks to her harshly and she suddenly changes her mind. Bobcat has unwittingly lost a big struggle that really never got started.

ANAGNORISIS

Annie Proulx quite often keeps anagnorises from her characters, who keep on keeping on, stuck in a rut, along their fatal paths. But she does makes sure to offer the reader a revelation, and mine comes after this:

Bobcat had had a prostatectomy three years earlier, and the perineal incision had cut both bundles of nerves. He had not had an erection since the operation and was still wearing diaper pads for the accompanying incontinence. Although he was glad to be alive, his condition made him irritable and short-tempered. The sight of his two grandsons, healthy and big, jumping around and talking about cars and girls and music, punished him severely. At the same time he felt pity for them, wanted to warn them that the hard years were coming and their entanglement of emotional and money problems, vexing questions about the cosmos, the hereafter, the right way of things, and then the slow, wretched betrayals of the flesh.

On the surface, Bobcat was responsible for the boys’ death, by arguing that they deserved the old cars, despite them being unsafe. But with this paragraph, and the way Proulx creates a brief “Overview Effect” by taking us up into the cosmos, tells us that Bobcat has unwittingly wished evil upon his grandsons, but indirectly. His envy of youth and his mapping his own old age onto theirs is so silently powerful that the iron teakettle hears him anyway. Christina has possibly involved Bobcat’s wishes by taking it out to him as he worked in the garage.

Apart from this revelation, there’s a twist in the plot of the tale. When Christina wishes her brother dead, she kills an illegitimate brother nobody knew of until now.

NEW SITUATION

Christina has the kettle and she alone knows what it can do. No one else has worked it out. So we can safely extrapolate that she’ll use it, not always wisely, and that her other brother is soon for the scrap heap. But before he goes, he is unwittingly causing harm via his own bad feelings.

TAKEAWAY TIPS FOR WRITERS

  • Study “Dump Junk” if you would like to insert some magic, but you would also like to start out writing a realistic setting. In other words, if you want to keep the fairytale element as a reveal.
  • Because of the big revelation that this story includes magic, it reads quite differently the second time round. We deduce, in hindsight, where Vivian got Christina’s three new dresses from. But even in minor descriptions, knowing hindsight changes the meaning. The ‘strapping hulks’ of great-grandsons is sadly ironic given that they’ve been killed because they weren’t strapped into their car seats.
  • As Proulx describes the junk-strewn house, we get a very clear image of the entire property in a few deft paragraphs. I definitely get the feeling Proulx has done her own large-magnitude clean-up job.

The old lady had gone in for jars, fabric scraps, and old clothing that might be used in a quilt, and, of course, recipes. She was a tireless clipper of recipes for Golden Raisin Hermits, Devil’s Food cake, pickles, leftovers masquerading under such names as “Pigs in Potatoes” (leftover sausages and cold mashed potatoes), “Roman Holiday” (leftover spaghetti with chopped string beans), “Salmon Loaf” (canned salmon, more leftover spaghetti). For decades Vivian Stifle had pasted the recipes in notebooks, account boos, novels, and books of instruction, each collection dated on the flyleaf. There were dozens of them lined up in the parlor glass-fronted bookcase. The recipes disclosed that the Stifles’ diet was dominated by a sweet tooth of enormous proportion. The old lady must have used ten pounds of sugar a week on chocolate cream pie, “Filled Cookies from Oklahoma,” and cream cake. She made her own maraschino cherries, too, and ketchup, the old kind of mincemeat that called for chopped beef, suet, and leftover pickles juice steeped in a crock – food that nobody now knew how to make. Still, the corporate food purveyors had been making headway, for many of the recipes featured Crisco, Borden evaporated milk, Kingsford cornstarch, and other mass-produced foodstuffs. Sometime in the 1950s she had stopped collecting recipes. The last book on the shelf was dated 1955, and there were only a few recipes pasted onto the pages of a Reader’s Digest condensed book.

The detail of rat droppings in the bags really resonates, because that’s exactly what you find when you’re cleaning them out after a rat or a mouse infestation.

“There are just hundreds! Now I save some of the plastic bags, but these – they’re all mouse droppings and dust.” The paper bags stuck to one another in great chunks as though they were trying to return to their earliest incarnation as trees.

“Watch out, Aunt Christina, you can get hantavirus messing with mouse droppings.”

“Dump Junk” is a masterful example of a fairytale revisioning. Proulx has borrowed fairy magic and used ‘the granting of wishes’ as a metaphor for ‘the passing down of intergenerational violence’. Bad feelings travel down. The overall message becomes: A history of poverty and family violence doesn’t just stop in its tracks, even if subsequent generations ostensibly haul themselves out of it, due to living through more prosperous modern times.

Stories We Tell About Women Who Kill

Monster Movie Poster women who kill

There is a strong audience for stories about women who kill men. Storytelling seems to be going through the Age of the Woman Killer right now, with the popularity of Dirty John (podcast and TV series) and a much publicised movie about the Lorena Bobbitt case, which originally happened in the early 1990s. On Netflix you’ll find many TV series about murderers, as well as some about specifically female murderers. (Killer Women with Piers Morgan, Deadly Women.) In these shows, of course, the gender of the killer is presented as her defining attribute.

Among the many reasons why we love crime stories in general, I have wondered if stories about killer women serve to offer men the rare opportunity to consider what it might be like to be scared of a woman. But actually, my theory doesn’t hold up. The stories we tell about women who kill tend to reposition dangerous women back into the role of victim. Very few truly scary women are permitted to remain in our stories without a narrative arc which puts her safely back into her meek, feminine role.

However, I think the discussion around the #metoo movement is finally starting to change the way we tell stories about women who kill.

Robert Maguire 1921 - 2005 (illustration date unknown) - Femme Fatale, one of many
Robert Maguire 1921 – 2005 (illustration date unknown) – Femme Fatale, one of many

Facts about women who kill

  • Across various countries, when women are murdered, nearly 1 in 4 are killed by an intimate partner.
  • The intimate partner who murders is overwhelmingly likely to be male.
  • Compared to how many women are beaten by intimate partners, women who murder those abusive partners are rare.
  • But when women do kill their abusive male partners, it’s most likely after multiple counts of abuse. She likely fears for her own life at time of killing.
  • Battered women syndrome describe this phenomenon. It is a psychological theory developed in the late 1970s. It is considered an outworking of the woman’s PTSD.
  • If a woman uses this reason in court, she is considered mentally ill. [But is it mental illness, or is it a rational, logical self-defence to which anyone might be driven in the same circumstance? Any answer to that can work both for an against the woman in court.]
  • In America at least, when women kill men, they most often use a gun. Even if they have wounded rather than killed, they’ve usually wounded with a gun.
  • Gender has been under-researched in criminology. We don’t have a good understanding of the psychology of women who kill.
  • Women who kill are less likely to have a criminal history.
  • https://video.twimg.com/ext_tw_video/1328079156593131521/pu/vid/576×1024/LRScgJHVQsxpRwwu.mp4?tag=10

The stories we tell ourselves about female victims

Whenever these facts are pointed out online, a proportion of voices points out that women can be annoying, and that women kill children too.

Pamela Hill Nettleton made the following observations in a study of magazine coverage of women who kill:

  • There are few stories about women who fight back. This may contribute to a culture in which men feel they can abuse women without physical consequences. Perhaps this is why Dirty John is such a satisfying real life story. The ending is so rare, and includes wish fulfilment, for women, with an underestimated female killer who doesn’t know her own strength until it’s tested. Roald Dahl’s “Lamb To The Slaughter” is a purely fictional example of a cold, calculating woman who gets away with her crime. The novelty is that she doesn’t use the typical weaponry of guns or knives, and that it includes cannibalism. The type of cannibalism we are most afraid of: Women serving up humans as food. This is an ancient fear of women as in control of the domestic sphere, explored in an old fairy tale such as “The Juniper Tree“. But the novelty of Dahl’s story is also that this is not a character we associate with cold, murderous intention. Women who fight back are regarded as anomalies in real life situations.
  • Women are held accountable for the violence men do. Sociologist Nancy Berns called this ‘degendering the problem and gendering the blame’. (Inversely, men are held responsibile for the good work women do. Let’s call that the Pygmalion Effect.)
  • Male violence is seen as violence in general, with gender excised.
  • But female victims are blamed for victim-like behaviours that are particularly attached to their gender.
  • Women’s magazines tend to hold women responsible for male violence. (They choose violent men, they are passive, they are victims, they are shameful for choosing to stay with men with children even after learning the men are violent.)
  • Men’s magazines treat violence against women with humour with no responsibility put on men as a gendered group. (They are not told to curb their anger and stop hitting women.)
  • Women are advised to: Choose different men, avoid adding stress to men’s lives, move far away, change their names.
  • Descriptions of victims often highlight their mental physical and emotional problems, or the couple’s financial problems. Domestic violence is described in terms that assign equal blame to victim and perpetrator.
  • This creates a story in which domestic violence is seen as an inevitable occurrence.
  • At first media depicts battered women as mad, later in the narrative they depict her as bad. This is known as the mad then bad pattern. Mad = emotionally abused to the point where she is mentally ill. Bad = scheming, manipulative. These women are depicted as helpless victims, until they’re behind bars. Then they are described as ‘safely’ behind bars and we’re all good with it.

Charlotte Bunch writes that if one ethnic national group were attacking another, killing and maiming them at the same rate as men attack and kill women (and she is speaking only of attacks by intimates), the situation would be held to constitute a state of emergency or even war. But domestic violence is only one campaign in what amounts to a widespread war against women.

Marilyn French

The stories we tell ourselves about female killers

  • Women who kill are sensationalised, titillating stories. In fiction, “The Woman At The Store” by Katherine Mansfield sexualises (in a disgusting way) a female character. The reveal is that this woman has killed her husband. Annie Proulx does the same thing in “The Wamsutter Wolf“. In both stories, the murder is kept off the page, and the reader is left to deduce the violence. In both cases, the woman’s sexuality is underscored—written to disgust and to scare the reader in what amounts to psychological horror rather than gore.
  • Women killers are described as frightened rather than fearsome.
  • Women killers are described as feminine, with femininity emphasised. (Attractive, meek weak, small size compared to their victims, description of clothing and make up, polite, timid etc.)
  • Women killers are sexualised. So are their crimes. (Femmes fatales, high heels, seductress etc) When a woman kills a female lover, it might be described as a ‘cat fight’.
  • We like stories in which women killers don’t mean to kill. Case in point, Thelma & Louise.
  • Women killers get a backstory (ghost). Everyone wants to know what motivates them. We want to know their history of past abuse over time. “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner is all about the troubling back story of a woman who kills. We deduce she is obsessive, a shut-in, not quite right in the head.
  • Stories about women who kill tend to dwell on the point where she picks up and uses her weapon. Writers tend to consider a women who kills a ‘man bites dog’ story. Similarly, in other types of stories there tends to be a strong emphasis on a certain aspect of it. You won’t find a Hansel and Gretel story without the edible house. More problematically, in stories about transgender experience, there is often uncalled for emphasis on the transformation itself (the application of lipstick, the putting on a dress, the surgeries, in the case of male to female transitions). In portal fantasies, a completely different (and benign example), there is emphasis on the portal itself. In storytelling in general, audiences crave emphasis on ‘transitions’. The point where a woman has enough and picks up a gun is equivalent — in universal storytelling terms — to her Anagnorisis followed by her Battle (the murder), and the consequences are her New Situation.
  • These stories are also redemption stories. As part of her redemption, she is returned to a more acceptable version of femininity: penitent, regretful, truly subordinate.
  • The audience is invited to gaze upon the broken and battered body of the female murderer — abuse which happened prior to her crime. This moves the woman to a more comfortable place for the audience — from predator to victim.
  • As part of the Plan part of the story of women murderers, stories suggest her plan should have been to simply leave her male batterer. As a fictional story, this may satisfy an audience. As a real life scenario, this is completely unrealistic. When women leave their abusive partners, the risk to their life becomes severely magnified. Leaving is the most dangerous thing she can do.

What we don’t tell in our stories about women murderers

There are several concepts we might turn to when talking about missing narratives. Stuart Hall has shaped the field of racial and ethnic studies. He talks about ‘the silences’. See Policing The Crisis, 1978.

There’s also the phrase ‘symbolic annihilation’, a term coined by George Gerbner in 1976 to describe the absence of representation, or underrepresentation, of some group of people in the media (often based on their race, sex, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, etc.)

The silences in narratives about women who kill

  • Stories of women who describe their decision to kill as necessary, despite being tragic, regrettable etc. (The only time I’ve seen this narrative is in a news program, during an interview with female prisoners. These women are viewed as unrepentant and it surely affects their parole and length of sentence.)
  • Stories which go into the wider culture in which this happens. Apparently, the new Lorena Bobbitt movie is a welcome change in this respect. It took Western culture more than 20 years to produce a reframing of this narrative, which I still remember everyone treating as a joke, even though I was 15 at the time, and living a world away in New Zealand.
  • Narratives which portray women murderers as strong and dangerous and deliberate.
  • Narratives which hold men responsible for stopping the cycle of abuse.
  • Stories which challenge the idea that battered women syndrome is a fact of life, and that men will be killed occasionally as a result, and that law enforcement will inevitably let women down in this regard (but they are doing their best).
  • Stories about concerned and caring men speaking out about other men who are abusive. Genuinely good men are rendered invisible in the media.
  • Stories about powerful, accomplished and capable women who find themselves in an abusive relationship. (Dirty John is a welcome new change in that regard, as well.)
  • Stories about the role of patriarchy in creating male violence. (The Gillette ad of early 2019 was perhaps an example of that kind of narrative. It did not go down well.)

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

If you’re a fan of true crime, definitely check out the Wordery podcast Real Crime Profile. With Laura Richards’ involvement, this is one of the few true crime shows which really gets it. Each week the hosts take a parallactic view of a true crime TV show.

The Wamsutter Wolf by Annie Proulx

The Wolf of Wamsutter Annie Proulx

“The Wamsutter Wolf” by Annie Proulx is a short story included in the Bad Dirt collection. The title of the collection comes from this story.

STORYWORLD OF “THE WAMSUTTER WOLF”

This particular setting can be geolocated.

Wamsutter is a town in Sweetwater CountyWyoming, United States. The population was 451 at the 2010 census.

Wikipedia

As of this moment, there’s no mention of Proulx’s short story on the Wikipedia page. I’d have thought someone’d include that, since Proulx is a well-known American writer and, as a result, tends to put places on the map.

An old highway and the newer Lincoln Highway divide the 1.5 square miles of red dirt town of Wamsutter into three portions. The Google car didn’t bother driving all the way in, but allows us a glimpse of the place from the periphery.

McCormick Road Wamsutter

With its bright blue sky, low horizons and red earth vista, this little town could almost exist here in Australia, maybe somewhere near the SA, NT border. The idea that a wolf could live in Wamsutter is already ridiculous. Pan out a bit and you’ll find plenty of greenery nearby-ish.

However, something tells me this is not a story about wolves, per se…

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE WAMSUTTER WOLF”?

Buddy, a man in his mid-twenties is having some bad luck. The jobs he’s taken since finishing school at 16 all seem to end. While house-sitting for his parents back home, the place gets burgled. Buddy gets the blame from all sides. He decides to move to a tiny town called Wamsutter, and try his luck finding work there.

But the bad luck continues when he learns the trailer right next door belongs to the sociopathic bully from high school, Rase Wham. Rase has shacked up with Cheri, from the same year and now they have a pack of kids.

Also hanging round is a man who thinks of himself as a genuine mountain man from an earlier century, though it’s clear he makes far more use of modern conveniences than he’s prepared to let on.

One night Rase breaks his son’s arm. Buddy comes home to find Cheri and her kids all in his trailer, messing it up, stinking it out. He drives them to the hospital and, that night, Cheri gets into bed with him and he has sex with her, nearer the non-consenting end of the rape continuum. He considers it rape.

He can see her plan is to get rid of Rase and turn Buddy into her new partner, so he hotfoots it out of there, and makes the decision to head on up to Alaska, about as far away as he can get from Rase. Buddy’s father knows what Rase is like and on the phone encourages Buddy to high tail it out of there without even stopping to gather his things.

But after Buddy arranges the job in Alaska, he does need to go back for his things. He runs into the family while he’s there. The young child whispers that the wolf got his father and that the mountain man friend is his new daddy now.

SYMBOLISM

Wolf symbolism is used in various different ways throughout the story. We know someone is Proulx’s designated wolf (baddie) but she saves that until the end.

POLITICAL ISSUES

Is “The Wamsutter Wolf” an example of ‘hixploitation‘? We are certainly encouraged to laugh at these people. I found myself laughing out loud then cringing at the next terrible turn point. I’m in no doubt that this is Proulx’s exact intention. People who literally live in trailers among trash make for easy comic targets. We tend to other them. But their struggles are real.

Ultimately, this is a story of domestic violence, and one woman’s way of dealing with it. Our viewpoint character, Buddy Millar, manages to get out of that mess, just as the reader can shut the book. But Cheri has to find a way to go on living, and she proves more genuinely ‘mountain’ than her pretend mountain man saviour.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE WAMSUTTER WOLF”

Though “The Wamsutter Wolf” is a far more successful example, the plot and characterisation of “The Wamsutter Wolf” reminds me of “The Woman At The Store” by Katherine Mansfield.

  • Both short stories star an unappealing woman who disgusts the viewpoint character by her unkempt appearance and rabid sex drive. The reader is invited to share in the viewpoint narrator’s disgust of her.
  • In both cases she’s wound up with kids she didn’t plan for (or against).
  • Each story ends with a revelation, from the naive but knowing offspring, that the uncouth woman (perhaps unaided, perhaps not) has gotten rid of her abusive husband by killing him.

SHORTCOMING

The concept of ‘main character’ is problematic in “The Wamsutter Wolf” because we have a viewpoint character and the story of his life, but we also get, through his point of view, the story of Cheri. This is a story-within-a-story.

Buddy has decided to work straight out of school rather than go to college, so he’s at the mercy of temporary work which keeps drying up.

Our sympathy is firmly with him. We learn that while house-sitting for his parents, the house gets broken into. Buddy goes out of his way to recover what items he can, but still gets the blame, despite the fact this could’ve happened while his parents were at home themselves. I had a lucky escape myself at the same age, when I couldn’t get out of housesitting for my boss while she went off on a lengthy trip to Europe. Her place was broken into soon after my house-sitting duties ended. I counted myself lucky it didn’t happen on my watch.

Buddy has a dislike for intellectualism. He sees any sort of knowledge as fake and annoying, which is why he dislikes his cousin Zane, whose speciality is wolves. Yet he could leverage Zane’s connections and get a decent job if he didn’t feel so negatively. By the end of the story Buddy will learn to make use of his connections.

He will also learn to appreciate his father, despite them being at loggerheads a lot of the time.

DESIRE

Buddy Millar wants steady work but he also likes to take the bad dirt roads no one else uses. These two desires don’t mesh well together, since there doesn’t tend to be much work in remote areas.

However, if these desires are going to mesh anywhere, they’ll mesh in Alaska, which is where Buddy is headed by the end of the story.

When he gets drawn into the neighbours’ business he has a strong desire to extricate himself immediately.

OPPONENT

The romantic opponent, if you will, is Cheri Wham, who had the hots for Buddy in high school and decides he’s her next baby daddy after Rase proves himself an irreconcilable abuser.

Proulx draws the comparison between Cheri Wham and the pack rats who have moved into the abandoned trailer Buddy finds. The imagery is extended with Proulx depicting Cheri a fat woman, since pack rats are larger than your ordinary rats.

Most of this applies to Cheri as well as to packrats:

Each species of pack rat is generally restricted to a given type of habitat within its range. Pack rats live anywhere from low, hot, dry deserts to cold, rocky slopes above timberline. Pack rats build complex houses or dens made of twigs, cactus joints, and other materials. These contain several nest chambers, food caches, and debris piles. Dens are often built in small caves or rocky crevices, but when close by human habitations, woodrats will opportunistically move into the attics and walls of houses.

Wikipedia

PLAN

Buddy is a passive character for much of the story, going along with whatever else is happening. He doesn’t want to go into the rathole of a trailer for a grimy coffee, but he does. He doesn’t want to have sex with a woman he finds contemptible, but he does. We put up with these foibles from him because he sometimes does the right thing — he takes the boy to hospital when no one else will.

Eventually he is kicked out of his passivity when he begins to fear from his life. When he makes plans to move to Alaska, that’s when we know Buddy won’t be swept passively into anyone else’s dramas so easily from now on.

BIG STRUGGLE

The battle scene is the one where Buddy thinks Rase might come over to his trailer and kill him. It feels like a scene straight out of No Country For Old Men, with a man sitting behind a door, gun to the ready. But the scene is ultimately anti-climactic.

Proulx could have made a conflict-filled meal out of the phone call between Buddy and his father, in which Buddy tells part of a story and leaves out the more incriminating part (the fact he had sex with Cheri). Writers often default to this under the belief that more conflict is always good, and that characters should never be totally honest with each other. But Buddy is completely honest with his father, which actually feels like a bit of a subversion of what we were expecting. Proulx does cut the conversation in two—the first half happens with the mother, then Buddy has to wait a full day before learning if his dad will help him out. During this time, Buddy’s big struggle is with himself.

ANAGNORISIS

The big plot revelation (which I should’ve seen coming, having recently read Mansfield’s identical plot) is that Graig or Cheri or both have killed Rase Wham.

All through the story I wondered who Proulx was going to designate as ‘the’ wolf (of Wamsutter). This is revealed to us in the final sentence. The wolf is Graig the wannabe mountain man, who has his own pack now.

Buddy’s Anagnorisis is that his father ultimately has his back no matter how tough he acts. He thought his father was tough, but now he’s really been up close and personal with tough. His attitude towards his own cousin therefore takes a turn — he is able to rely on family connections to find work, so with a renewed appreciation for family, he relies upon his annoyingly know-it-all cousin to find him something.

Perhaps he’s partly learned from Cheri to make the most of your connections.

NEW SITUATION

With Cheri’s life pattern now established we extrapolate that she’ll remain with Graig for as long as he treats her well, then, if all goes well, once he starts abusing her she’ll quickly find a new man to be her protector.

Meantime, our viewpoint character Buddy Millar (our Buddy, not Cheri’s) will move on to a new job. We’re left with the feeling that this time his work will be protected and that his life is looking up from here on in.

Like consent itself, happy endings fall on a continuum.

Big Blonde by Dorothy Parker

“Big Blonde” by Dorothy Parker is a short story in five parts, included in various collections. We can read it for free online. The ‘Good Sport’ girl is the grandmother of Gillian Flynn’s ‘Cool Girl’.

When Gillian Flynn published Gone Girl, our culture had a new phrase to describe the kind of woman who spends her time modifying herself to men’s fantasies: The Cool Girl:

“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)”

STORYWORLD OF “BIG BLONDE”

Dorothy Parker offers us the early 20th century version of The Cool Girl, who’s really not so different from Gillian Flynn’s early 2000s version. Parker calls her the Big Blonde, in line with pin-up fantasies at the time. The men call her a ‘good sport’. The phrase used to refer to sex workers (and adjacent cottage industries) of the time was ‘sporting woman’, which says a lot, I think. These ‘sporting women’ were ‘cool girls’. They were women who’d go along with what a man wanted, and what men wanted was often sex, which gave rise to the euphemism.

Parker’s story focuses on the psychology of a woman in transition, from Cool Girl to Middle Aged Lonely Woman.

Parker wrote this story at an interesting time for beauty politics. This is a woman whose larger build was considered attractive during her youngest years as an adult, but who found the culture shifted around her to idealise the slim, boyish silhouette. 1920s Western fashion preferred the slim, straight-up-and-down body type found more typically in men than in women, but revered in women all the same.

Flapper Girls 1920s
Flapper Girls of the 1920s are specimens of beauty from this era.

To avoid placing undue emphasis on our bodies, it’s important we all understand the extent to which women’s BMIs (in particular) have always been judged according to external beauty standards which are nothing to do with some inherent measure of health and unchanging beauty, but everything to do with external forces. For instance, in times of famine and epidemic, women are expected to be fatter. In times of plenty, women are expected to be slimmer. This ‘perfect body’ has constantly changed all throughout history.

And sometimes it changes in a single lifetime. Dorothy Parker was around to see that, and in Big Blonde she writes a portrait of how that milieu can affect a woman on the level of the individual. Parker grew up in an America which idealised The Gibson Girl (not a real person but an image) and then idealised the Flapper.

Of course, beauty standards don’t just change from era to era — they also vary according to place. This is a Western story, set in New York, around and bubbling and roiling of the first world war. It’s not easy now to imagine the psyche of living in such a tumultuous time. Alcohol was the socially acceptable drug of choice. Did the men in this story realise they’d be going off to war soon, some of them never to come back? “Big Blonde” is not a story about the war, but we can’t separate the state of the world from the actions of these individuals — their hedonistic recklessness may have had political influences.

The way men and women’s beauty is considered differently can be seen even at a linguistic level. Take the word ‘blonde’. I have in the past looked up a usage dictionary to understand whether it always needs an ‘e’ at the end or not. Here’s what my Australian usage dictionary says about that:

blond(e): There are two words concealed here. The first, blond, is a perfectly normal English adjective meaning fair, which can be masculine or feminine. The second, blonde, is an imported French noun, meaning a blond female. Those who use the word blond as a noun, meaning a fair male, should consider the situation with brunette. Its French male form, brunet, exists in The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary but not in the language, i.e. the imported words apply only to females.

Whoever wrote this usage dictionary tries to put it nicely, but is forced to eventually just say it: We really only refer to women by their hair colour, not men. Male forms of blonde and brunette exist, but only technically. This is precisely why Dorothy Parker chose to use the word as her moniker for what Flynn calls the Cool Girl. This is a specifically feminist story — a portrait of a real life sexist trope, whom Parker sets up specifically to encourage critique.

Later in the century, Peggy Lee remade the 1921 song Dorothy Parker quotes  in “Big Blonde”. Lee’s is my favourite version. The original sounds like something out of a horror movie.

NARRATION IN “BIG BLONDE”

The danger in writing a story like this: The reader might critique the individual, and not the culture who creates her. This is always a problem for a writer, especially a short story writer, in which it must be done concisely.

How does a writer get around the danger of misplaced critique? I believe there’s only one way to try and avoid it (and even then, we don’t achieve it for every reader): These stories are heavy on narration. In some stories, like John Cheever’s “Reunion”, for example, Cheever does nothing more than painting a scene via first person narrator. There’s no critique from an unseen narrator. Readers are left to draw our own conclusion, because the conclusion is shared by any decent human being: That the father in that story is an asshole, and the son did well to get him out of his life.

But “Big Blonde” is a critique of an aspect of culture rather than of a person, and a large chunk of readers will have never thought on this topic beforehand — the ways in which ridiculous, ever-changing beauty standards affect women as individuals, and the way young women are expected to do the emotional labour for men at the expense of knowing themselves. We have terms to describe these phenomena now — the term ’emotional labour’ is itself a new phrase. The term was coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. 1920s readers would not have considered the concept unless they were especially astute, forward-thinking feminist types. The language did not exist. Therefore, in a story like “Big Blonde”, the typical reader required heavy guidance from a narrator.

This leads to an important question for short story writers to ask before we set out to write a story, or perhaps only in the revision. Have we critiqued an aspect of culture with which typical readers are already on board? Or are we saying something seldom considered and/or widely misinterpreted?

The answer to that will affect our choice of narration, and the ratio of action/dialogue to narrative summary.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “BIG BLONDE”

SHORTCOMING

Marriage was different in this era. Parker’s narrator explains that in this circle, husbands aren’t all that important to the women. She means as an emotional support. The men offered nothing of that sort. Of course husbands — or husband proxies — were vital for economic support. Women are unable to support themselves financially. If they do work they earn a pittance (even for the same work), there’s no social security for divorced or single women, and they’ve been brought up to rely on men. They can’t think and plan their way out of a culture in which women are meant to be breeders and homemakers.

Hazel needs emotional connection, but the tragedy is she never finds it.

Hazel is often shortened to ‘haze’, making it a symbolic name — this character lives in a haze of drunkenness.

DESIRE

Hazel initially wants to have fun with her husband in the same way she had fun as a young, attractive, single woman. But marriage requires a different set of skills. Neither Hazel nor her husband develop these skills, and the culture doesn’t encourage it, either.

Beneath the surface, Hazel wants human connection.

OPPONENT

Hazel’s opponents are the men who come in and out of her life. Her biggest opponent is her husband because she initially expects more from him. Subsequent men are absolved by Hazel’s absent expectations.

Hazel’s opponent is also the culture which values her for how she looks and what she can offer sexually to men.

Hazel’s opponent is alcohol.

PLAN

Hazel is an example of a main character whose plan is barely conscious let alone thought-out. The plan of an alcoholic is to lurch from one situation to the next, living in the moment, focussed only on the next drink.

This doesn’t make for a satisfying story on its own, but if other characters have their own plans, and these plans affect our main character, then that makes a story that works.

A woman without a plan for her life finds herself at the mercy of other people’s wishes for her. In Hazel’s case, she becomes a proxy ‘good sport’ wife, to complement men’s images of themselves, and to allow men to have both a domestic goddess at home and a sex kitten in private, in a culture which separates women into these binary categories.

BIG STRUGGLE

When a friend introduces her to barbiturates, she takes a whole lot of them and is knocked out cold for days.

The colored maid summons the doctor, who observes Hazel ‘couldn’t be killed with an axe’.

ANAGNORISIS

Hazel realises that killing herself isn’t easy and she must therefore bear the rest of her life in this way:

She dropped the card to the floor. Misery crushed her as if she were between great smooth stones. There passed before her a slow, slow pageant of days spent lying in her flat, of evenings at Jimmy’s being a good sport, making herself laugh and coo at Art and other Arts; she saw a long parade of weary horses and shivering beggars and all beaten, driven, stumbling things. Her feet throbbed as if she had crammed them into the stubby champagne-colored slippers. Her heart seemed to swell and fester.

NEW SITUATION

Hazel will go on living her life under the haze of alcohol.

Oh, please, please, let her be able to get drunk, please keep her always drunk.

MESSAGE OF “BIG BLONDE”

With this realisation and this new situation, Parker seems to be saying that alcohol helps some people to endure their lives. Living in a haze is one way to live. That’s just how it is. Some people live and die like that. This makes “Big Blonde” the opposite of a didactic tale.

I’m reminded of Helen Garner’s novel “The Spare Room” in which Garner explores the numerous ways to die slowly (of cancer). Dominant culture tells us we must accept that we’re going to die. Garner points out that many people never accept it, then they die anyway, and what’s wrong with that? That’s one way to do it.

Why ‘Toxic Masculinity’ Is A Problematic Phrase, But Only Grammatically

Poster by Leopoldo Metlicovitz, circa 1930

A few weeks ago Gillette dominated social media for producing an advertisement criticising what is now more widely known as ‘toxic masculinity’. In academic circles, ‘toxic masculinity’ has been used since the 1990s and refers to  ‘… the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence’ (Kupers, 2005).

And now ‘toxic masculinity’ is a phrase used outside academic circles. Without ever having looked up what ‘toxic masculinity’ really means, many responded negatively to Gilette’s advertising message, arguing various versions of:

  • Masculinity is not toxic
  • Not all men are toxic
  • Masculinity is wonderful, actually, and needs to be celebrated

Counterarguments largely contained an explanation of what ‘toxic masculinity’ means, or is supposed to mean: That toxic forms of masculinity are toxic.

Though I feel uncomfortable with this part of the phrase myself, I’ll leave aside the etymology of ‘toxic’, and how the scientific definition remains different from the pop psychological usage. That’s a different conversation. ‘Toxic’ in this context means ‘deadly’ at worst, ‘damaging’ at best.

Fast forward a few weeks and Donald Trump Jr. is at a rally. He uses the phrase ‘loser teachers’:

“I love seeing some young conservatives because I know it’s not easy. Keep up that fight. Bring it to your schools. You don’t have to be indoctrinated by these loser teachers that are trying to sell you on socialism from birth. You don’t have to do it. Because you can think for yourselves. They can’t.”

Note that I’ll also leave aside the various interpretations of ‘socialism’, except for a meme:

socialism never works

Donald Trump Jr’s use of ‘loser teachers’ is an interesting counterexample because ‘toxic masculinity’ is a phrase generally used by progressives, mostly defended by progressives, whereas the phrase ‘loser teachers’ was used by a conservative, and is mostly defended by conservatives.

In case you missed that analog, here is a comment on a post by School Library Journal’s Facebook feed after SLJ posted an article refuting that ‘teachers are losers’. The poster self-identifies as a teacher, but does not consider herself a ‘loser teacher’.

loser teacher

ADJECTIVES, NOUNS AND WORD ORDER

  • ‘Toxic masculinity’
  • ‘Loser teachers’

Both are identical in their construction: An adjective modifying a noun.

There are many ways linguists talk about adjectives, and one major distinction is between ‘attributive’ and ‘predicative’ adjectives. Attributive adjectives are placed before the noun they describe:

  • blue fish
  • tall person
  • swimming dolphins

Predicative adjectives are placed later in the sentence, after a verb.

  • The fish is blue
  • The person, who is tall
  • Those dolphins that were swimming

As you can see, there are various ways of joining an adjective phrase to a noun phrase… when the adjective is in predicative position.

Adjectives in predicative position afford the speaker more nuance. When an adjective comes after the noun in this way, we are able to make use of a comma (in written English) and of pauses + intonation (in spoken English).

This allows us to distinguish between a ‘restrictive’ adjective phrase and a ‘non-restrictive’ adjective phrase.

Restrictive adjective phrase:

  • We need to get rid of masculinity which is toxic.

Non-restrictive adjective phrase:

  • We need to get rid of masculinity, which is toxic.

The first sentence, sans comma, conveys the idea that there are various forms of masculinity, but in this case we’re only talking about a certain kind of masculinity — that which is toxic. Subtext: The speaker believes other forms of masculinity are fine.

The second sentence, with a comma, conveys the idea that there is one broad form of masculinity, and that broad category is toxic. Subtext: The speaker doesn’t approve of masculinity in general.

Another useful word is ‘appositive’. An appositive adjective appears right beside the noun it describes. ‘Toxic masculinity’ and ‘loser teachers’ are both appositive adjectives. (These adjectives are also attributive, but attributive adjective phrases can be very long, e.g. super-duper hairy-ass poo-bum twit. Only ‘poo-bum’ is appositive, because it’s right next to the noun it describes.)

Linguists have noticed that appositive adjectives tend to be heard as non-restrictive, whereas relative clauses and prepositional phrases coming after the noun (postnominal PPs) tend to be heard as restrictive.

In other words, when we say ‘toxic masculinity’, the listener is likely to infer that masculinity, in general, is toxic.

When Donald Trump Jr. says ‘loser teachers’, the listener is likely to infer that all teachers, in general, are losers.

This is a feature of language, before personal politics even come into it.

PESKY PRAGMATICS

This chart is a useful breakdown of linguistic fields, which I found somewhere on the net:

linguistic structure

Pragmatics muddy the waters, because unfortunately, people are not computers. No matter how careful we are with our language, the other person (the interlocutor) will bring their life experiences to its interpretation. Sadly for cross-political communication, we interpret a sentence according to information we already possess, or according to politics to which we already subscribe.

When a progressive person hears ‘toxic masculinity’, we expand that in our head to ‘toxic forms of masculinity’. When a conservative hears ‘toxic masculinity’ they expand that in their head to ‘masculinity is toxic’.

When a progressive person hears ‘loser teachers’, we expand that in our head to mean ‘teachers are losers’. When a conservative hears ‘loser teachers’, they might choose to hear ‘specific teachers who also happen to be losers’.

WHAT CAN SPEAKERS DO ABOUT THIS?

Two critical concepts:

  1. If someone says ‘loser teachers’, or ‘toxic masculinity’, or any adjective + noun combo, listeners will interpret that as ‘all nouns are adjective’ unless their existing personal politics intervene. If Donald Trump Jr. did not mean to convey the message that teachers in general are losers, he picked his words badly. (Whether he was indeed speaking of a small sector of teachers is another question, and I remain skeptical.)

Unfortunately for progressive feminists like me, the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ has the exact same problems, to do with the intersection of syntax and pragmatics. I fully acknowledge there are aspects of masculine indoctrination which need to change, yet I feel the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ shuts down the conversation rather than opens it up. The exact cohort who needs to be talking about these problems only hear ‘all masculinity is bad’, ‘I am bad’, ‘I am ashamed’, ‘I’m not allowed to feel ashamed — the only negative emotion I’m allowed to feel is anger’. That anger is directed back on the speaker. Everyone remains miserable.

How do commentators avoid using the problematic phrase ‘toxic masculinity’? Some institutions (e.g. The American Psychological Association) instead prefer the term ‘traditional masculinity’. Is this any less problematic to the people most resistant to criticism? I suspect not.

There’s also the term ‘hegemonic masculinity’. But who, outside academic’ truly understands the meaning of hegemony? I mean, it’d be great if everyone did understand that word. And there’s an argument to be made for making that one mainstream. Hegemonic masculinity is pretty much the same thing as ‘toxic masculinity’, but for whatever reason, non-academics understand ‘toxic’ much more easily. Maybe one day hegomony will be considered a mainstream English word. But not yet.

I propose a minor linguistic fix in the meantime: We could replace ‘toxic masculinity’ with ‘toxic forms of masculinity’. This has the added advantage of conveying the important idea that it’s not masculinity, but masculinities plural. That’s how sociologists think of it, and so should we all.

2. Unfortunately this rubs up against another universal fact about human language and its evolution — speakers convey ideas using the fewest words possible. But when aiming to persuade, good communicators will occasionally resist this tendency to abbreviate and condense. Sometimes, briefer is not better. ‘Toxic forms of masculinity’ may seem wordy, but is a better place to begin the conversation. As for ‘losers’? Donald Trump Jr. is right. It does seem America’s teachers are losing out. But calling anyone a ‘loser’ is a very broad, deliberate insult, and nothing good can come of it.

RELATED READING

There are other problems with the concept (rather than the grammar) of ‘toxic masculinity’.

Some scholars have critiqued toxic masculinity for the way that it constructs a sense that there is a contrasting ‘healthy’ masculinity for which men should strive. For example, Waling (2019) argues that the binary of toxic versus healthy masculinity is unhelpful.

Hannah McCann

For more on this see Waling, A. (2019). Problematising ‘toxic’ and ‘healthy’ masculinity for addressing gender. Australian Feminist Studies , 34(101), 362–375.

Header poster by Leopoldo Metlicovitz, circa 1930

What Kind Of Furniture Would Jesus Pick by Annie Proulx

what kind of furniture would jesus pick
“What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?” by Annie Proulx is the story of Gilbert Wolfscale, whose rabid devotion to his ranch drives off his wife and sons.

You can read this one online.

STORY WORLD OF “WHAT KIND OF FURNITURE WOULD JESUS PICK?”

This story reminds me of Larry McMurtry’s Hud, probably because it’s the story of an old farmer with farming values, increasingly disappointed in how his sons are not the slightest bit interested in following the farming tradition.

This is a uniquely 20th/21st century problem for farmers — until there was tertiary education, sons of farmers knew they were going to follow in their fathers’ footsteps*. Now, the child of a farmer can go to university or just move away and do something completely different. In these stories, the old farmer often has the self-realisation that the land does not belong to the family after all, but simply that the family was entrusted with it for a period of time — a time which feels briefer and briefer the closer one gets to death.

*More farmers than you think are women; this has always been so.

Proulx opens this short story as if she’s opening a non-fiction account of an area (which she calls The Sagebrush Ocean). She starts with the general region, comparing land to an ocean, then focuses in on an ‘island‘ called The Harp Ranch. Proulx doesn’t geolocate this place for us. Instead she gets as specific as ‘a small basin east of the Big Horns’ (meaning the Bighorn Ranges of Wyoming). The towns of Kingring and Sheridan are mentioned. Sheridan is a real place on the map — I don’t believe Kingring, WY is. Proulx often does this — she throws in a few real towns for verisimilitude, but her own creations are just that, so she throws in a made-up town which her main made-up town is supposedly on the way to. It’s a great technique and I’ve borrowed it myself.

The characters in this story came of age at the time of the Vietnam War, which affects them in various ways.

This is a harsh landscape. Its harshness is mentioned with reference to grasshoppers and dry, crackling grass, the dust.

The air was baked of scent except for the chalky dust with its faint odor of old cardboard.

This is why Annie Proulx is a legend. Isn’t that exactly what it smells like? Even here in Australia.

Time runs more or less in linear fashion across a man’s life (briefly touching on his ancestor) but there’s a bit of back and forth. For instance, we’re only told when it becomes relevant that Gilbert’s wife left him back in 1977. The Salt Lake Olympics (2002) are mentioned before the events of 1999 in which Gilbert gets a (scam) letter from the ‘California Sate Allocation Department’.

Utah hosted the winter olympics in 2002. The Great Basin water politics between Utah and Wyoming bother Gilbert. In this way, Proulx brings current events onto the page.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “WHAT KIND OF FURNITURE WOULD JESUS PICK?”

Budgel Wolfscale — Proulx has said she likes to write stories which span two (sometimes three) generations. It puts human life into perspective, showing we’re nothing more than links in a chain. It’s humbling. Budgel Wolfscale was the earliest Wolfscale to the area, so she begins with him. She tells the story of his life in a paragraph, something Proulx is very, very good at. She makes it interesting and digestible to the reader by interpolating major life points with tight focus detail:

Budgel Wolfscale, a telegraph clerk from Missouri, on his way to Montana to search for the yellow metal, stopped at a Wyoming road ranch for a supper of fried venison and coffee, heard there was good range. For the next week he rode around the country, finally staked a homestead claim where Scots cows had spent their brief time.

More on details in fiction.

Notice how Proulx mentions the ‘Scots cows had spent their brief time’. She’s talking about cows (because they’re slaughtered before they have time to get old) but she’s really also talking about people, via the characters who populate this story.

Annie Proulx uses the ranch link the various generations of Wolfscales. ‘The Harp skidded down the generations to Gilbert Wolfscale, born on the ranch in 1945…’ Likewise, the house he keeps extending is described as ‘telescoped’.

After a character description of old man Gilbert, we get a flashback to the 1950s, to a formative experience when Gilbert was a boy, taken out by his father to work like a man building the road. The county had no money to fix the road themselves (which turned to quagmire due to heavy melt from the mountains) so the farmers got together. He was too young to be of any actual help, but he made a play corral, returning at various times throughout his life, observing that most of it has blown away. Proulx is making use of the technique of miniatures in storytelling. Gilbert is learning to see his entire life in this telescoped way.

Proulx describes Gilbert’s failed money-making attempts in the same way she described his earliest American ancestor — with a mixture of summary and detail. Details such as putting cranberry necklaces on the turkeys hoping to sell them endear him to the reader, as does the fact he never gives up, and he’s doing his darnedest to compete against corporations who deal directly with supermarkets. We tend to root for the underdog.

Annie Proulx sometimes takes symbols or storylines from fairytale and folklore and puts them in a contemporary story about farmers in Wyoming. We have Proulx’s version of The Frog Princess, Proulx’s version of The Magic Porridge Pot in “Dump Junk“, and now we have a reference to Baba Yaga stories. Baba Yaga fences her domain in the forest with the skulls and bones of her victims whose eyes glow by moonlight. (The skulls are used to decorate the pickets of the fence.)

In an earlier decade, struggling to finish the job on a hot afternoon, [Gilbert Wolfscale] had cast about for a stick or something to twist tight a diagonal cross-brace wire, but the only thing he had at hand was a cow’s bleached leg bone with its useful trochlea head, which seemed made to jam fence wire tight. It worked so well that he collected and used cow bones in dozens of places. These bony fences and the coyote skulls nailed to the corner posts gave the Harp a murderous air.

Proulx introduces another family of the same generation, the Codenheads. Usually in a story these characters will exist for comparison purposes, as opponents to highlight the shortcoming of the main character. May Codenhead is established immediately as a romantic opponent.

This leads in to the overview of the woman Gilbert did marry, with focus on her regret and quiet disappointment. Like Katherine Mansfield did in “The Wind Blows“, Proulx uses the wind, or rather Suzzy’s attitude towards it, as pathetic fallacy — the wind represents her internal state. This describes Leila’s state of mind in Mansfield’s story as well:

There had even been a day when [Suzzy New] was a young girl standing by the road waiting for the school bus when a spring wind, fresh and and warm and perfumed with pine resin, had caused a bolt of wild happiness to surge through her, its liveliness promising glinting chances. She had loved the wind that day.

But her changing attitude towards the wind signals a changing state of mind. The wind itself is her opponent, or symbolic opponent:

But out at the ranch it was different and she became aware of moving air’s erratic inimical character. The house lay directly in line with a gap in the encircling hills to the northwest, and through this notch the prevailing wind poured, falling on the house with ferocity. The house shuddered as the wind punched it, slid along its sides like a  released torrent from a broken dam. Week after week in winter it sank and rose, attacked and feinted. When she put her head down and went out to the truck, it yanked at her clothing, shot up her sleeves, whisked her hair into raveled fright wigs.

Wolfscale wonders if May’s child (conceived before marriage) is his. It’s revealed his wife left him but he’s not lonely. He’s an active part of his community but feels alienated from his male peers who are Vietnam vets. He has a grim fascination with that war.

Hoping to entice his two sons out to the ranch, he puts in electricity. But they don’t come any more frequently.

Old Mrs Wolfscale is taken in by a scammer then falls and breaks her hip immediately. (We’re not told it’s a scammer but we are given plenty enough information to deduce.) Because Mrs Wolfscale is unable to post her reply (and empty her bank account) the fall feels, to this reader, like providence.

Gilbert is required to take his mother to her appointments but is no good at providing emotional support.

The title of the story comes from a conversation his mother overhears in the doctor’s waiting room — a thought experiment attached to a new kind of church in which people imagine Jesus lives among them. I think the idea of Jesus or God coming to earth must be a fairly common thought experiment because we’ve seen it in entertainment e.g. The Acid House from the late 1990s (I don’t recommend that, it’s disturbing), and the idea doesn’t die because this year we get a TV series Miracle Workers starring Steve Buscemi as God. (I’m not sure if God himself comes down to earth in that one.)

The mother is a bit of a caricature, though it is revealed she’s succumbing to dementia, which means it’s probably not an exaggeration at all that she would be fussy about which sponge Gerald uses.

The old woman is expecting mail. The reader is in audience superior position because we know what she’s expecting. Gerald isn’t in on the secret. However, Proulx doesn’t let us in on what exactly is going to happen — is someone siphoning off Gerald’s entire assets? As a writing technique this is interesting, because the audience is half in on something, showing that the dichotomy of audience superior vs audience inferior is not a ‘dichotomy’ at all.

When the mother dies it is revealed to Gilbert that she has nothing in her savings account.

Farming life gets harder with water issues in particular.

It is revealed that his ex-wife has been fraudulent and is now facing jail time. Gilbert makes an effort to catch up with one of his sons who works in a store stacking shelves. At lunch he realises he didn’t know basic stuff about his own family.

He drives home and is alone.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “WHAT KIND OF FURNITURE WOULD JESUS PICK?”

SHORTCOMING

The phrase ‘even inept help was hard to find’ feels like close third person point of view rather than an objective fact. We are told in the same paragraph that Gilbert Wolfscale works with more stamina than any horse, so my interpretation is that he is a hard task master who alienates people. This is confirmed later on when Proulx tells us:

He was a model of rancher stubbornness, savagely possessive of his property. He did everything in an odd, deliberate way. Gilbert Wolfscale’s way, and never retreated once he had taken a position.

But notice how Proulx gave us ample chance to make up our own minds about him first (all carefully managed by Proulx, of course).

DESIRE

Gilbert Wolfscale wants to stay on his farm, make money from it without incorporating modern farming practices, then pass the farm on to his sons knowing it will continue in exactly the same way for many more generations to come.

OPPONENT

May is Gilbert’s romantic opponent, then the woman he does actually marry, who regrets it and then leaves him in 1977. She takes his sons with her to Sheridan, where they are unable to experience a ranch life. This doesn’t please Gilbert, who wants them to become farmers.

As usual for an Annie Proulx short story we have newcomers who stand in opposition to the established, genuine farmers.

“Them rich pricks are lower than a snake’s ass in a wagon track,” he said to his mother.

The rich people want to buy his farm but they don’t want to carry on the tradition of farming — they want to bulldoze it. At least, that’s what Gilbert thinks. Whether that’s true or not, we don’t know. Proulx has already established his character, so no one would be able to run the farm as well as Gilbert, according to Gilbert. Gilbert threatens to shoot a man who makes an offer on his farm.

A story often has a big, bad outside opponent (like a twister in a disaster movie or aliens in a SF story). Where there is no big, bad opponent, communities tend to imagine one up. In this case, Gilbert positions the Mormons in Utah as his main opponent, because according to him they ‘seeded the clouds for the Olympics’ and sucked out all the moisture. He’s a conspiracy theorist.

His opponent outsiders include academic experts whose concerns are sustainable farming and the passage of antelope. Gilbert isn’t interested in all that. He is suspicious of book learning and has respect only for people at the ‘coal face’.

PLAN

Gilbert tries various money-making schemes but they don’t work. He refuses to take professional advice.

When his wife leaves with their two boys he tries to entice them back to the farm by putting in electricity. This doesn’t work.

BIG STRUGGLE

Right around the Battle, the character almost dies, even if it’s just metaphorically.

As is usual int he ranch world, things went from bad to worse. The drought settled in deeper, like a lamprey eel sucking at the region’s vitals.

The drought is against him but so are other people ruining the available water.

He fought back.

These are the major big struggles of Gilbert’s life but of course there has to be the smaller, one-on-one, domestic big struggles to finish off that side of the story.

The interpersonal big struggles take place first with the wonderfully named Fran Bangharmer then with his younger son at the fast-food joint. The son is keeping a secret about the other son, which puts them at loggerheads.

ANAGNORISIS

When Gilbert realises he didn’t know that his granddaughter Arlene had been ill ‘even a day’ with cancer and that he’d somehow failed to pick up that one of his sons is gay, he realises he’s not on the same wavelength as his family at all. They’re strangers to him. We know he’s had some kind of epiphany or grim realisation because he can’t seem to move when the lights turn green.

But because this is not a reflective sort of character, Gilbert thinks he’s had another kind of revelation, or, he uses another kind of revelation to distract himself from the painful one.

He knew what kind of furniture Jesus would pick for his place in Wyoming. He would choose a few small pines in the National Forest, go there at night, fell and limb them, debark the sappy rind with a spud, exposing the pale, worm-tunnelled wood, and from the timbers he would make the simplest round-legged furniture, everything pegged, no nails or screws.

But the two are connected, because the revelation about what furniture Jesus would pick is a metaphor for how Gilbert feels about life now. Or rather, how he’s always felt, and how his opinions haven’t changed. Gilbert respects basic skill and hard work. He despises anything that makes a rancher’s life a bit easier and now he’s paying the price (as Jesus did).

This anagnorisis coincides with the plot revelation that the mother of his boys has been embezzling money. This is a pretty common technique which makes a story feel extra fleshed-out.

The final sentence suggests Gilbert has regrets about getting into ranching.

NEW SITUATION

As in Larry McMurtry’s Hud, a man is left alone on his ranch, with everyone else either dead or left him because of his difficult personality. But in this instance we’ve got the grandfather figure left alone; in Hud it’s the son.

 

The Contest by Annie Proulx

THE CONTEST ANNIE PROULX

“The Contest” by Annie Proulx is a short story from the Bad Dirt collection, published 2004.

Like Larry McMurtry, Proulx writes two main types of stories — comical stories similar to those found in dime novels (in McMurtry’s case) and in hunting and fishing magazines (in Proulx’s case).

“The Contest” belongs to the comical class, and makes a great case study in satirical anticlimax. When writing an anticlimactic story we have to be careful not to make the reader feel like we have wasted their time. This one works, and it’s worth taking a close look at the story structure. Proulx has done something interesting with it.

SETTING OF “THE CONTEST”

This is a humorous tale, and a satire of smalltown Wyoming rural life, where parish pump politics rule, and where the usual human pecking order works by unusual rules.

Utilised across about half of the short stories in her Bad Dirt collection, Annie Proulx created the small town of Elk Tooth.

The population is only 80, yet there are three bars in town—Silvertip, the Pee Wee, and Muddy’s Hole. Presuming the entire populace is of drinking age—not a bad assumption, considering their barren, infertile surroundings—that’s roughly one bar for every couple dozen citizens, which actually seems about right. Given the lack of a social scene on these arid prairies, and the rural tragedies that seem as common as they are strange, where else is there to go but a dive like the Pee Wee, which in one story (“The Contest”) sponsors a beard-growing competition? When there’s nothing else going on, watching whiskers sprout may be the most entertaining pursuit available.

The A.V. Club review

There’s a definite magical realist twist near the end of “The Contest”, but otherwise this feels like a slight exaggeration on what could be a real place. The exaggeration, of course, would come from a narrator skilled in the art of the tall tale.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE CONTEST”

Presumably because they have nothing else to do, the men of Elk’s Tooth start a beard contest. It’s meant to be a bit of fun but becomes mean spirited, as it seems to symbolise, to the men, their entire identities.

Before the contest is over, a newcomer arrives. The guy’s beard is luxurious to a comical degree. The men tacitly agree that the contest is over. They’ll find some new way to sort out the pecking order, and turn immediately to modes of transportation.

Why beards, though? For obvious reasons, beards are often a symbol for masculinity as a whole. Perhaps Proulx wrote this story to take the mick out of the pissing contests that so often go down between men in drinking establishments.

David Walliams makes fun of the same in a skit from episode one of David Walliams and Friend (the one featuring Jack Whitehall). A chav type (Whitehall) walks into a bar and says to the other man (Walliams), “I’m better than you.” Ridiculous dick-waving continues until the climax, in which it is revealed the Whitehall character is a virgin. This supposedly negates all his masculine features. So often, when male comedians try to subvert concepts of masculinity, they almost get there but ultimately fail. The idea that you can’t be a man unless you have sex with a woman is as damaging as the other markers of masculinity proposed by the chav character.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE CONTEST”

The structure of “The Contest” is very interesting. As I often do on this blog, I’d like to compare it to a children’s picture book. Children’s stories in particular are known to start with the iterative (a description of what happens all the time) and then switch to the singulative (But on this particular day…).

Proulx makes use of this switch, but in a children’s story the iterative introduction tends to be brief. After all, we don’t care much for what happens every boring old day. We want to know what happens on this particular day. Something unusual, you can bet.

But in “The Contest”, Proulx spends ten pages setting up with the iterative — sort of — and then the last three pages in the singular.

Here’s where it switches over:

On this April afternoon Creel was, aside from Amanda and Old Man DeBock, the only one in the bar.

It’s not quite as simple as that, because you could argue the beard contest is in itself a singular event. Structurally, though, the beard contest is exactly the sort of thing that happens all the time. So I’m treating this ‘one off’ contest as Annie Proulx’s way of telling us all the backstory of this town — how it works, who lives there, how the streets are laid out.

Unless we know this town, the singulative portion of the story doesn’t make sense. Even so, this is a story with a classic, anti-climactic ending.

The anti-climactic ending, when used in the extreme, is known as a shaggy dog tale, which I consider a subcategory of the tall tale — a regional, masculine tradition, in line with the narrative voice.

SHORTCOMING

Like many of Proulx’s stories, “The Contest” stars a community rather than an individual. The characters together make up a vision of one eccentric rural figure. Their shortcoming is their extreme isolation, and the insular thinking that inevitably results.

Proulx presents a society that is struggling and persisting at best – which is not especially likeable, but for which we still feel tremendous sympathy as it strains to comprehend the meretriciousness of modernity. She creates characters who, despite their tenacity and will, are somehow flattened against the landscape, beaten down, and whose tragedy is more everyman and woman than individual.

The Observer review of Bad Dirt

This is specifically about the men of the community, who are so similar to each other, really, that they can only distinguish themselves by superficial means e.g. by the colour, length and texture of their beards. As well as the David Walliams sketch, I’m reminded of the ridiculous happenings that Amish communities have become known for. When everyone is forced to live in exactly the same way, humans still have a way of pulling themselves up the pecking order, even if it means inventing an entirely new pecking order. When you’re only allowed to drive a horse and wagon, you can still trick out your wagon. The great irony of being human: the need to stand out and also the need to be like everybody else. (At least, for the neurotypical population.)

DESIRE

The men in “The Contest” want to be respected by each other. Since beards are a symbol of manhood, I guess they each want their manhood respected. (This requires being sized up by a woman — the bartender.)

OPPONENT

In a pissing contest like this, everyone entered automatically becomes everyone else’s opponent. But the stakes are very low. The prize money is insubstantial.

Despite internal rivalries, the community of men will band together in the face of a newcomer who will show them all up. The conflict in many, many stories works exactly like this: The ‘family’ start off fighting about something insubstantial, but as soon as the outsider baddie enters the story, they band together. I suppose it’s a popular progression because real life works like this. There’s no better way to cement ingroup bonding than by pitting the entire group against another group.

Ralph Kaups is the embodiment of everything sophisticated and foreign. By the end, two of the men, Creel Zmundzinski and Plato Bucklew have banded together. The symbolic opposition exists between country bumpkins and  sophisticated blow-ins.

PLAN

There’s not much involved in growing a beard. In fact, you don’t have to do anything. If you’re the sort of person who can grow a beard, you just hang around waiting for it to grow. So how does one turn that plot starter into a fully-fleshed story?

Proulx knows that the beard contest is just the wrapper for something far more meaty — a detailed description of a town and its people, each with their own mini backstory.

A lot of language humour derives from Proulx’s comically detailed descriptions, in sentences with multiple descriptive clauses.

But a profusion of detail does not make a story. It still needs some kind of shape. For that, Proulx introduces a mystery — equally trifling — how did Bill de Silhouette catalogue his books before he up and died? This is important because they need to put their hands on a book about beards in order to settle bar disputes between them.

BIG STRUGGLE

The bar scene is very much like something out of a classic Western, with the shady newcomer barging in through the double swing doors. There are no guns here, but a clear winner nevertheless, symbolised not by the hue of the hat but by luxuriousness of beard.

The mystery of de Silhouette’s library cataloguing is solved when Bill’s widow happens upon a notebook with the key written down — a fitting anticlimactic solution within an anticlimactic tale.

“It was funny. I was cleanin out that big chest in the hall and I come on some a Bill’s notebooks. There was one he’d written on the cover. “Book Key.” I looked in it and it was the system he used. Made me mad he didn’t tell me about it before he went.”

ANAGNORISIS

Part of the humour revolves around the observation (revelation) that it takes outside intrusion to band a community together. Otherwise they’ll just keep fighting each other.

 NEW SITUATION

We can extrapolate that the beard contest is over, because no one will want to give prize money to this up-himself blow in.

Now they’ll engage in arguments about who has the best motorcycle/car/horse/wagon. The hierarchy will be based not on who has the flashiest equipment, but on whose is the most eccentric, according to their own smalltown logic, which itself is a nebulous thing.

Bigger than that, a newcomer will psychologically band these rural men together, at least for a time, and the ‘cruel competitiveness’ will simmer down.

TAKEAWAY WRITING TIPS

  • If writing a story in which nothing happens (e.g. growing a beard) it’s a good idea to introduce a mystery.
  • If the plot ends in anticlimax (e.g. a competition is set up but no one really wins it), then the mystery can be anticlimactic, too.
  • Opposition comes in two main forms — opposition between members of the same group (what sociologists call ingroup) and opposition from the outgroup. Stories tend to progress in two main ways: an outgroup opponent appears early and the ingroup members band together to fight them. Or, as in this story, an inversion on the usual, the bulk of the story revolves around ingroup bickering, and the outgroup opponent only arrives to finish things off.

The Sexism Behind Top Ten Lists

reading

Stephen King’s list of top ten ALL TIME favourite books is doing the rounds, because anything Stephen King has ever said regularly does the rounds. That’s why I’m going to focus on Stephen King as just one example of a wider trend: Men don’t count women among their favourites.



STEPHEN KING’S DECLARED FAVOURITE BOOKS

1. The Golden Argosy, The Most Celebrated Short Stories in the English Language – edited by Van Cartmell and Charles Grayson

2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

3. The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie

4. McTeague – Frank Norris

5. Lord of the Flies – William Golding

6. Bleak House – Charles Dickens

7. 1984 – George Orwell

8. The Raj Quartet – Paul Scott

9. Light in August – William Faulkner

10. Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy

copy and pasted from Open Culture

Every single one of those books is either entirely by a man or edited by men.

For any widely read reader, limiting favourites to ten is always going to be a ridiculously contrived list, which is why it’s so annoying that he mindlessly picked creators who look/ed just like himself.

In his writing book, On Writing—mostly read by other writers and uber fans—Stephen King lists more of his favourite books at the back. Here you will find a few women.

This is a list of the books he recommended for writers back in 2000:

Abrahams, Peter: A Perfect Crime
Abrahams, Peter: Lights Out
Abrahams, Peter: Pressure Drop
Abrahams, Peter: Revolution #9
Agee, James: A Death in the Family
Bakis, Kirsten: Lives of the Monster Dogs
Barker, Pat: Regeneration
Barker, Pat: The Eye in the Door
Barker, Pat: The Ghost Road
Bausch, Richard: In the Night Season
Blauner, Peter: The Intruder
Bowles, Paul: The Sheltering Sky
Boyle, T. Coraghessan: The Tortilla Curtain
Bryson, Bill: A Walk in the Woods
Buckley, Christopher: Thank You for Smoking
Carver, Raymond: Where I’m Calling From
Chabon, Michael: Werewolves in Their Youth
Chorlton, Windsor: Latitude Zero
Connelly, Michael: The Poet
Conrad, Joseph: Heart of Darkness
Constantine, K.C.: Family Values
DeLillo, Don: Underworld
DeMille, Nelson: Cathedral
DeMille, Nelson: The Gold Coast
Dickens, Charles: Oliver Twist
Dobyns, Stephen: Common Carnage
Dobyns, Stephen: The Church of Dead Girls
Doyle, Roddy: The Woman Who Walked into Doors
Elkin, Stanley: The Dick Gibson Show
Faulkner, William: As I Lay Dying
Garland, Alex: The Beach
George, Elizabeth: Deception on His Mind
Gerritsen, Tess: Gravity
Golding, William: Lord of the Flies
Gray, Muriel: Furnace
Greene, Graham: A Gun for Sale
Greene, Graham: Our Man in Havana
Halberstam, David: The Fifties
Hamil, Pete: Why Sinatra Matters
Harris, Thomas: Hannibal
Haruf, Kent: Plainsong
Hoeg, Peter: Smilla’s Sense of Snow
Hunter, Stephen: Dirty White Boys
Ignatius, David: A Firing Offense
Irving, John: A Widow for One Year
Joyce, Graham: The Tooth Fairy
Judd, Alan: The Devil’s Own Work
Kahn, Roger: Good Enough to Dream
Karr, Mary: The Liar’s Club
Ketchum, Jack: Right to Life
King, Tabitha: Survivor
King, Tabitha: The Sky in the Water
Kingsolver, Barbara: The Poisonwood Bible
Krakauer, Jon: Into Thin Air
Lee, Harper: To Kill a Mockingbird
Lefkowitz, Bernard: The Ignored
Maclean, Norman: A River Runs Through It and Other Stories
Maugham, W. Somerset: The Moon and Sixpence
McCarthy, Cormac: Cities of the Plain
McCarthy, Cormac: The Crossing
McCourt, Frank: Angela’s Ashes
McDermott, Alice: Charming Billy
McDevitt, Jack: Ancient Shores
McEwan, Ian: Enduring Love
McEwan, Ian: The Cement Garden
McMurtry, Larry: Dead Man’s Walk
McMurtry, Larry, and Diana Ossana: Zeke and Ned
Miller, Walter M.: A Canticle for Leibowitz
Oates, Joyce Carol: Zombie
O’Brien, Tim: In the Lake of the Woods
O’Nan, Stewart: The Speed Queen
Ondaatje, Michael: The English Patient
Patterson, Richard North: No Safe Place
Price, Richard: Freedomland
Proulx, Annie: Close Range: Wyoming Stories
Proulx, Annie: The Shipping News
Quindlen, Anna: One True Thing
Rendell, Ruth: A Sight for Sore Eyes
Robinson, Frank M.: Waiting
Rowling, J.K.: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Rowling, J.K.: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Rowling, J.K.: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Russo, Richard: Mohawk
Schwartz, John Burnham: Reservation Road
Seth, Vikram: A Suitable Boy
Shaw, Irwin: The Young Lions
Slotkin, Richard: The Crater
Smith, Dinitia: The Illusionist
Spencer, Scott: Men in Black
Stegner, Wallace: Joe Hill
Tartt, Donna: The Secret History
Tyler, Anne: A Patchwork Planet
Vonnegut, Kurt: Hocus Pocus
Waugh, Evelyn: Brideshead Revisited
Westlake, Donald E.: The Ax

He updated the list when he updated the book, ten years later:

Abrahams, Peter: End of Story
Abrahams, Peter: The Tutor
Adiga, Aravind: The White Tiger
Atkinson, Kate: One Good Turn
Atwood, Margaret: Oryx and Crake
Berlinski, Mischa: Fieldwork
Black, Benjamin: Christine Falls
Blauner, Peter: The Last Good Day
Bolano, Roberto: 2666
Carr, David: The Night of the Gun
Casey, John: Spartina
Chabon, Michael: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Child, Lee: The Jack Reacher novels, starting with Killing Floor
Connelly, Michael: The Narrows
Costello, Mark: Big If
Cunningham, Michael: The Hours
Danielewski, Mark: House of Leaves
Diaz, Junot: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Dooling, Richard: White Man’s Grave
Downing, David: Zoo Station
Dubus, Andre: The Garden of Last Days
Enger, Leif: Peace Like a River
Exley, Frederick: A Fan’s Notes
Ferris, Joshua: Then We Came to the End
Franzen, Jonathan: Strong Motion
Franzen, Jonathan: The Corrections
Gaiman, Neil: American Gods
Gardiner, Meg: Crosscut
Gardiner, Meg: The Dirty Secret Club
Gay, William: The Long Home
Goddard, Robert: Painting the Darkness
Gruen, Sara: Water for Elephants
Hall, Steven: The Raw Shark Texts
Helprin, Mark: A Soldier of the Great War
Huston, Charlie: The Hank Thompson Trilogy
Johnson, Denis: Tree of Smoke
Keillor, Garrison: Good Poems
Kidd, Sue Monk: The Secret Life of Bees
Klosterman, Chuck: Fargo Rock City
Larsson, Stieg: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Le Carre, John: Absolute Friends
Lehane, Dennis: The Given Day
Leonard, Elmore: Up in Honey’s Room
Lethem, Jonathan: The Fortress of Solitude
Lippman, Laura: What the Dead Know
Little, Bentley: Dispatch
Malamud, Bernard: The Fixer
Martel, Yann: Life of Pi
McCarthy, Cormac: No Country for Old Man
McEwan, Ian: Atonement
Meek, James: The People’s Act of Love
Niffenegger, Audrey: Her Fearful Symmetry
O’Brian, Patrick: The Aubrey/Maturin Novels
O’Nan, Stewart: The Good Wife
Oates, Joyce Carol: We Were the Mulvaneys
Pelecanos, George: Hard Revolution
Pelecanos, George: The Turnaround
Perrotta, Tom: The Abstinence Teacher
Picoult, Jodi: Nineteen Minutes
Pierre, DBC: Vernon God Little
Proulx, Annie: Fine Just the Way It Is
Robotham, Michael: Shatter
Roth, Philip: American Pastoral
Roth, Philip: The Plot Against America
Rushdie, Salman: Midnight’s Children
Russo, Richard: Bridge of Sighs
Russo, Richard: Empire Falls
Simmons, Dan: Drood
Simmons, Dan: The Terror
Sittenfeld, Curtis: American Wife
Smith, Tom Rob: Child 44
Snyder, Scott: Voodoo Heart
Stephenson, Neal: Quicksilver
Tartt, Donna: The Little Friend
Tolstoy, Leo: War and Peace
Wambaugh, Joseph: Hollywood Station
Warren, Robert Penn: All the King’s Men
Waters, Sarah: The Little Stranger
Winegardner, Mark: Crooked River Burning
Winegardner, Mark: The Godfather Returns
Wroblewski, David: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
Yates, Richard: Revolutionary Road

It’s possible I’ve misgendered a few but I’ve emboldened the female creators on his list. As you can see, the expanded list still skews hugely male. (A couple of those recommended books are by his own wife, but okay.)

King is so powerful as a writer that he is unable to criticise other writers without sounding mean-spirited.

Nevertheless, King sometimes punches down. These are the books King recommends in his memoir as examples of bad writing:

“Asteroid Miners” — which King admits is not the exact title (and therefore can’t be found)
Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Sussan — the story of three young women who become fast friends in the turbulent post-war worlds of Broadway and Hollywood
Flowers In The Attic by Virginia Andrews — about some children who are locked in the attic by their grandmother and begin an incestuous relationship.
The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller — the story of  about an Italian war bride, Francesca, who lives with her husband and two children on a farm in Iowa, then falls in love with someone else.

Though his list of negative examples is short, of the books King names accurately, they are either by a woman or about a specifically female experience. I’ll make no comment about how terrible they are, because that’s beside my point: If he was going to pick mainly men as good examples, there were plenty of male creators to choose from when picking bad ones. His list of bad books skews female.

HETEROSEXUAL MEN LOVE MEN

King’s top ten list, combined with his list of bad examples, reminds me of the following quote:

To say that straight men are heterosexual is only to say that they engage in sex (fucking exclusively with the other sex, i.e., women). All or almost all of that which pertains to love, most straight men reserve exclusively for other men. The people whom they admire, respect, adore, revere, honor, whom they imitate, idolize, and form profound attachments to, whom they are willing to teach and from whom they are willing to learn, and whose respect, admiration, recognition, honor, reverence and love they desire… those are, overwhelmingly, other men. In their relations with women, what passes for respect is kindness, generosity or paternalism; what passes for honor is removal to the pedestal. From women they want devotion, service and sex.

Heterosexual male culture is homoerotic; it is man-loving.

Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality (1983)

KING’S FAVORITE SHORT STORY COLLECTION

Stephen King’s favourite short story collection, The Golden Argosy, was published in 1955. Inevitably, that includes mainly white male writers as well.

This collection is no longer in print, but a reviewer on Goodreads collected links to each of the stories as they exist on the web, and here it is.

This year I’ll make sure to read the paucity of women in this collection. If I haven’t already, I’ll write about their stories on this blog.

  • Paul’s Case by Willa Cather (1905)
  • Old Man Minick by Edna Ferber (1922)
  • The Fly by Katherine Mansfield (1922)
  • Big Blonde by Dorothy Parker (1929)
  • Flowering Judas by Katherine Anne Porter (1930)

(Edit: Now that I’ve read them, only two of the five are about women — “Big Blonde” and “Flowering Judas”.)

LET’S MAKE LISTS OF WOMEN

Since publishing corporations will tell you, women keep their corporations alive. In the USA, women are the more avid book readers, per the study, being 13% more likely than men to have read a book in the prior 12 months (77% vs. 68%). Women are also far more likely to be buying books as gifts for others.

Work — and art — by women remains undervalued.

A study of more than 2 million books revealed that titles by female authors are on average sold at just over half the price of those written by men.

WHAT TO DO? WHAT IF YOU JUST LIKE READING MEN?

First, this brilliant article, which applies to so, so much:

I DON’T HATE WOMEN CANDIDATES — I JUST HATED HILLARY AND COINCIDENTALLY I’M STARTING TO HATE ELIZABETH WARREN

by DEVORAH BLACHOR

I don’t need to go out of my way to gender balance my reading. I’ve done a post hoc count up and it happens quite naturally, probably because I’m female myself.

I write a newsletter for a sports club, and each month I do a member profile. Our club breakdown is almost exactly half women, half men. Writing newsletters is a bit of a pain in the neck, but I go out of my way to ask as many women as men for interviews. This isn’t easy, because more men than women come down to play other members (rather than privately).

We can all do small things like this to improve the current state of play.

However, in the name of redressing a wider imbalance…

MY FAVOURITE ALL TIME FAVOURITEST MOST FAVOURITE BEST EVER AUTHORS

In no particular order, here is my list of ALL TIME favourite authors.

  • Katherine Mansfield
  • Janet Frame
  • Lionel Shriver
  • Susan Faludi
  • Annie Proulx
  • Angie Thomas
  • Lynley Dodd
  • Maria Nikolajeva
  • Roberta Trites
  • Jane Austen
  • Toni Morrison
  • Marjery Hourihan
  • Naomi Klein
  • Patricia Grace
  • Cordelia Fine
  • Claire Messud
  • Peggy Orenstein
  • Angela Carter
  • Geraldine Brooks
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Marina Warner

Storytelling in Apple’s Advertisement “Share Your Gifts”

“Share Your Gifts” is an Apple commercial, of interest because it is a complete story in three minutes.

Classic story structure can be found in anything, from songs to narrative poems to advertising campaigns. Compared to when I grew up with free-to-air television only, and a commercial radio station that was always on, I’m rarely exposed to advertising these days. I use an adblocker and we pay to stream ad-free TV.  My husband convinced me to move to Canberra, sight unseen, after telling me that Canberra has a by-law which bans billboards. I was sold.

We’re all avoiding commercials these days, right? But when I do see one, it seems corporations have lifted their advertising game.

Apple’s 2018 Christmas advertising campaign is something I might even watch for fun, despite the ostentatious use of Apple products. I may not have even picked it as a commercial, since filmmakers get free Apple products by showing unrealistic numbers of Apple computers in their stories (which I deduce is how we get TV accountants using Macs, even though accountants would more realistically be using PCs.)

Last week, Apple revealed one of its biggest marketing secrets in federal court: The company relies heavily on free product placement in television shows and movies.And Apple has a fascinating history of product placement, which it doesn’t like to talk about.

Business Insider

STORY STRUCTURE OF SHARE YOUR GIFTS

SHORTCOMING

The main character (a woman in an oversized red jersey) is too afraid to show her creative work. Her psychological shortcoming is underscored by the lyrics of the soundtrack, “Come Out And Play” by Billy Eilish:

Hmm, hmm
Wake up and smell the coffee
Is your cup half full or empty?
When we talk, you say it softly
But I love it when you’re awfully quiet
Hmm, hmm quiet
Hmm, hmmYou see a piece of paper
Could be a little greater
Show me what you could make her
You’ll never know until you try it
Hmm, hmm
And you don’t have to keep it quietAnd I know it makes you nervous
But I promise you, it’s worth it
To show ’em everything you kept inside
Don’t hide, don’t hide
Too shy to say, but I hope you stay
Don’t hide away
Come out and playLook up, out of your window
See snow, won’t let it in though
Leave home, feel the wind blow
‘Cause it’s colder here inside in silence
You don’t have to keep it quietYeah, I know it makes you nervous
But I promise you, it’s worth it
To show ’em everything you kept inside
Don’t hide, don’t hide
Too shy to say but I hope you stay
Don’t hide away
Come out and play

DESIRE

Sophia wants human connection, and to be seen and recognised for her work, but her fear is holding her back from really connecting with others via her art.

How do we know this?

Mostly because fear of showing your creative work is a fairly universal feeling among creatives. But also because of her disappointment in herself. If she didn’t want to share her work with others, she would be able to take joy in the act of creating it, without the subsequent burden of self-criticism.

OPPONENT

This is a classic example of a story in which the main character is her own worst enemy. The only thing holding her back is her own lack of confidence.

But stories still require some other opposition, even if it’s functioning as a proxy, or a visual outworking, of the character’s own neuroses.

Here we have a dog, who wants to see her owner’s work but isn’t allowed.

Then we have the wind, opposition from the natural world, which eventually blows the papers away.

PLAN

Sophia’s plan is a non-plan — she is the classic passive hero who is forced out of her comfort zone. She literally ties down her creative work in a box.

BIG STRUGGLE

The wind blows the papers out of her hands and into the wild, where she is likely to be judged.

ANAGNORISIS

Since the wind blows the creative work right into the hands of people who will appreciate them, the wind is revealed to be a false opponent ally.

NEW SITUATION

In something this short, there’s no time for a lengthy New Situation phase, so we extrapolate that from now on this woman will not be afraid to show her work to others, and that she will be happier as a result.

As part of this campaign, Apple shared a ‘behind the scenes’ video, in which we learn — of course — that Apple computers were used in the making of it. Billie Eilish also made a video showing how she uses a Mac to make music.

It seems to me the main message Apple wants to push is that ‘making use of computers as part of your creative process does not remove the hand of the creator’. I’m guessing that’s why they paid a team of fabricators to create an actual set, rather than create the world itself on a computer.