The Trouble with Portrayal of Female Beauty in Books

A thoughtful essay titled “A First-Rate Girl” by Adelle Waldman gave me pause this morning. She writes about our perception of female beauty in every day life compared to how novelists portray female beauty (in short: they don’t get it):

I have a friend who dates only exceptionally attractive women. These women aren’t trophy-wife types—they are comparable to him in age, education level, and professional status. They are just really, notably good looking, standouts even in the kind of urban milieu where regular workouts and healthy eating are commonplace and an abundance of disposable income to spend on facials, waxing, straightening, and coloring keeps the average level of female attractiveness unusually high.

My friend is sensitive and intelligent and, in almost every particular, unlike the stereotypical sexist, T & A-obsessed meathead. For years, I assumed that it was just his good fortune that the women he felt an emotional connection with all happened to be so damn hot. Over time, however, I came to realize that my friend, nice as he is, prizes extreme beauty above all the other desiderata that one might seek in a partner.

I have another friend who broke up with a woman because her body, though fit, was the wrong type for him. While he liked her personality, he felt that he’d never be sufficiently attracted to her, and that it was better to end things sooner rather than later.

Some people would say these men are fatally shallow. Others would say they are realistic about their own needs, and that there is no use beating oneself up about one’s preferences: some things cannot be changed. Those in the first camp would probably say that my friends are outliers—uniquely immature men to be avoided. Many in the second camp argue that, in fact, all men would be like the man who dates only beautiful women, if only they enjoyed his ability to snare such knockouts. In my experience, people on both sides are emphatic, and treat their position as if it is obvious and incontrovertible.

To me, these stories highlight the intense and often guilty relationship that many men have with female beauty, a subject with profound repercussions for both men and women.

You’d think it would also be a rich subject for fiction writers—after all, our attitudes about beauty and attraction are tightly bound up with the question of romantic love. But, in fact, many novels fail to meaningfully address the issue of beauty. In a recent essay in New York, the novelist Lionel Shriver argued that “fiction writers’ biggest mistake is to create so many characters who are casually beautiful.” What this amounts to, in practice, is that many male characters have strikingly attractive female love interests who also possess a host of other characteristics that make them appealing. Their good looks are like a convenient afterthought.

This is, unfortunately, sentimental: how we wish life were, rather than how it is. It’s like creating a fictional world in which every deserving orphan ends up inheriting a fortune from a rich uncle. In life, beauty is rarely, if ever, just another quality that a woman possesses, like a knowledge of French. A woman’s beauty tends to play an instrumental role in the courtship process, and its impact rarely ends there.

When a novelist does examine beauty more closely, the results are often startling. Two of my favorite male novelists do not fall into the trap that Shriver delineated. They are clear-sighted and acute chroniclers of the male gaze.

Read the rest here. I haven’t read the books mentioned in the piece, but this line made me laugh: “So begins one of contemporary literature’s worst relationships.”

Jonathan Franzen on E-Books

Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom and The Corrections, expresses his thoughts on e-books:

The technology I like is the American paperback edition of Freedom. I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it’s pretty good technology. And what’s more, it will work great 10 years from now. So no wonder the capitalists hate it. It’s a bad business model.

I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change.

Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball.

But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.

I understand where Franzen is coming from, and I used to be in the same camp as he is now (i.e., I wouldn’t read any e-books). But ever since I finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs on my iPhone, I’ve become more warm toward reading books on digital devices (I have still yet to get a Kindle, however).

Franzen goes on:

Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing – that’s reassuring.

Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.

Yes, the concept of being reassured that the text hasn’t changed is wonderful. But he neglects dynamic titles that can be updated over the years (think introductions and forewords to texts). My feeling is that Franzen’s thoughts on e-books will become more malleable (i.e., sympathetic) in the next few years. It certainly takes time, as was the case with me.

Readings: Titanic Sinking, The Freedom World, Zuckerberg’s Generosity

Some interesting reads this week:

1) “The Truth about the Sinking of the Titanic” [The Telegraph] – we’ve all seen the movie, but this article suggests that the reason for sinking of The Titanic is because of a “schoolboy” steering error. Louise Patten, who is coming out with a novel, Good as Gold, reveals the truth about her grandfather:

‘My grandfather was the Second Officer on the Titanic,’ Patten explains. ‘He was in his cabin when it struck the iceberg. Afterwards, he refused a direct order to go in a lifeboat, but by a fluke he was saved.’ Astonishingly, he jumped into the ocean as the boat sank, was being sucked down into the depths – but was then carried back to the surface by the force of an explosion beneath the waves and was rescued by a passing lifeboat.

So why did the steering error happen? After the First Officer, William Murdoch spotted the iceberg, he gave a “hard a-starboard” order, which was misinterpreted by Robert Hitchins, the steersman:

‘Titanic was launched at a time when the world was moving from sailing ships to steam ships. My grandfather, like the other senior officers on Titanic, had started out on sailing ships. And on sailing ships, they steered by what is known as “Tiller Orders” which means that if you want to go one way, you push the tiller the other way. [So if you want to go left, you push right.] It sounds counter-intuitive now, but that is what Tiller Orders were. Whereas with “Rudder Orders’ which is what steam ships used, it is like driving a car. You steer the way you want to go. It gets more confusing because, even though Titanic was a steam ship, at that time on the North Atlantic they were still using Tiller Orders. Therefore Murdoch [First Officer] gave the command in Tiller Orders but Hitchins [the steersman], in a panic, reverted to the Rudder Orders he had been trained in. They only had four minutes to change course and by the time Murdoch spotted Hitchins’ mistake and then tried to rectify it, it was too late.’

If you’re still confused, check out a simplified explanation at Discovery News.

2) “The Freedom World” [The Smart Set] – in my previous post, I titled my post as a must-read. Jessa Crispin has come out with a timely post regarding must-reads, and she bases her argument on Jonathan Franzen’s latest book, Freedom (which I haven’t read). This is an interesting argument:

The idea that as a literary person there are a certain set of books you must read because they are important parts of the literary conversation is constantly implied, yet quite ridiculous. Once you get done with the Musts — the Franzens, Mitchells, Vollmanns, Roths, Shteyngarts — and then get through the Booker long list, and the same half-dozen memoirs everyone else is reading this year (crack addiction and face blindness seem incredibly important this year), you have time for maybe two quirky choices, if you are a hardcore reader. Or a critic. And then congratulations, you have had the same conversations as everyone else in the literary world.

And what of the must-read books?

Of course there is no such thing as a must-read book. Maybe you should read some Tolstoy, but then again maybe not, if overly long descriptions of fields don’t really do anything for you, or if you have some problems with the whole woman-has-a-desire-and-so-must-die thing. Maybe you should check out some Jane Austen, but then again, Jane Austen is pretty boring and the whole marriage-as-life thing, I mean who really cares. There is Shakespeare, but you could spend a day arguing Hamlet versus King Lear versus Julius Caesar and never have a clear winner.

I may come back to this argument later, as I do think there are must-read books out there. Until I read Jessa Crispin’s essay, I had no idea some critics were labeling Freedom as the book of the century:

“Best book of the century” is the statement of someone who has given up. That is an incredibly pessimistic viewpoint to have, don’t you think? That 10 years into the century, this is the best we can possibly do? Or perhaps he means the last hundred years. Maybe the guy really didn’t like Ulysses; it’s hard to tell.

It’s not that the guy didn’t like Ulysses; it’s that he never actually read it.

3) “Facebook Founder to Donate $100 Million to Help Remake Newark’s Schools” [New York Times] – Zuckerberg, who recently opened up to The New Yorker, is opening up in a different way: through a very generous contribution:

The $100 million for Newark is the initial gift to start a foundation for education financed by Mr. Zuckerberg. This would be by far the largest publicly known gift by Mr. Zuckerberg, whose fortune Forbes magazine estimated last year at $2 billion.

The gift is many times larger than any the system has received, officials said — an extraordinary sum not only for a district with an $800 million annual operating budget, but also for any publicly financed government agency. It is not yet clear how the money would be used, or over what period.

This is Zuckerberg’s first major act of philanthropy, and no doubt it’s huge. He would have made the headlines had he contributed even a tenth of his $100m pledge.