NEW YORK — Is it time to stop attacking male writers for being misogynistic if their characters sleep with a lot of people, or not in the right way? Roxana Robinson's recent attack on James Salter for being a misogynist was infinitely more graceful and nuanced than these sorts of attacks usually are, but the underlying charge that a male writer is sexist if you don't like his male character is a flawed way to approach the delicate and mysterious possibilities of literature. These sorts of emotionally and politically charged arguments stray too far from the words that are actually on the page, and hold the writer to a standard of behavior that is more suited to who you want to be friends with or sleep with than who you want to read; it becomes character assassination rather than literary criticism.
Robinson writes of Salter's main character in "All That Is": "Cold and withholding, Bowman's character denies the deepest and most fundamental aspects of compassion." She writes that he "feels entitled to his vindictiveness: He has no scruples and feels no remorse." She does not, in other words, like him very much.
Of course all of this evokes the recent fracas over novelist Claire Messud's character being unlikable. Messud implied it was sexist to say a female character should be likable; but Robinson is essentially saying Salter is sexist for his male character being unlikable. Which brings us to the question: Does everyone have to write likable characters? (Robinson seems to think yes, as even "Lolita" can't be counted as great literature in her book because Humbert Humbert is not conflicted enough to be sympathetic.) But should our central experience of literature be whether we would like to take the protagonist out to dinner? Should we be combing books for friends, or lovers, or even characters whose actions we can wholeheartedly condone?
Writing about feminist literary critics, Joan Didion argues that rigid politics have no place in the free, roaming creative space of fiction: "That fiction has certain irreducible ambiguities seemed never to occur to these women, nor should it have, for fiction is in most ways hostile to ideology," she writes in her 1972 essay, "The Women's Movement." Salter's main character may sleep with a lot of women, but his relation to them is trickier than his sexual history suggests. One of Bowman's paramours says to him, "Women are very weak." And he replies, "That's funny. I haven't found that to be so."
Here is part of Robinson's proof of Bowman's cold, unfeeling nature. When his wife won't have sex with him: "He knew he should try to understand, but felt only anger. It was unloving of him, he knew, but he couldn't help it." Is every man who feels that particular variety of anger at some point in their life a "misogynist"? Is admitting the irrational angers and rages that flow through intimate life sexist, or is it the work of literature to show or expose precisely this type of rogue emotional undercurrent? (And as a sidebar: don't women sometimes feel those kinds of anger too?)
When Kate Millett launched her impressive attack on male novelists for being misogynistic in "Sexual Politics," Norman Mailer made a relevant point. He argued that a particularly depressing Henry Miller scene about two men and a hungry prostitute was not a crude celebration of exploitation but an investigation of missed connections, a report from the bleakest frontiers of human loneliness. He argued Miller (and by extension himself and others) were often taking on the loneliness in sex as their subject, not just swaggering through an encounter.
One of the important issues is that there is a certain amount of distance between an author and a character. When for instance Salter writes that during Bowman's wedding, "Bowman was happy or felt he was," he is giving the reader a much more complicated and intricate perspective on romantic attachment than Robinson gives him credit for. Salter's story does not straightforwardly or simple-mindedly endorse all of Bowman's adventures; it is too cagey, too shrewd, too melancholy for that. Something can be indicted and glamorized at the same time; it can be beautiful and sad.
One of the problems with emotionally fraught criticism is that it often glosses over the words on the page; its loyalty is to some higher interpretation, and it can't be bothered with small things like the book itself. For instance Robinson writes that Bowman caddishly won't marry one of his girlfriends: "She finds him a beautiful house in the Hamptons. He won't marry her, but he buys the house in both their names." In fact, Bowman says to Christine, "It's going to be very nice living here. We could even get married." She says, "Yes, we could." He says "Is that an acceptance?" and she hedges. It is she who doesn't want to marry him, and she who won't commit. In fact their relationship falls apart because she cheats on him and takes him to court to get the house he bought for them to live in, claiming that he bought it for her, and not for them together. To interpret this affair as Bowman's crass philandering is to very creatively and deliberately skew the text, to subordinate story to idea. I bring this up only to point out the dangers inherent in ideological readings, the somewhat flimsy relation they often have to anything the reader might recognize as the book itself.
Robinson's main (and most powerful) condemnation of Bowman is "there is no conflict in this human heart." But Bowman is conflicted, complicated, though it is true that unlike a male protagonist in a book by a younger male writer, like Jeff Eugenides or Michael Chabon he does not often talk directly or muse endlessly about this conflict. To argue that a conflict doesn't exist because it is not put into words directly, analyzed with agonizing precision, effusively, guiltily mulled over, would be an error in judgment; it overlooks the great varieties of psychological composition and style. Salter writes conflict, he just writes it more subtly, more indirectly, more in the style of a Hemingway reader, than a post-feminist English major; he shades it in. To ask Bowman's World War II veteran to speak effusively about his feelings (and to compare him, as Robinson does, to Iago if he doesn't) is to fundamentally misunderstand the nuances and varieties of the human heart.
To read a book with true openness or receptiveness, we have to let Salter's character be his character, not a character so upstanding, so compassionate, we would want to marry him ourselves. One of the dangers of rigid politicized reading is that it imposes the ideas of the critic on the novelist, it asks the novelist to dream up a person acceptable to the critic, not a person who acts freely in their own world. One could even argue that an important benefit of fiction is that you learn about other kinds of people, alien people, people you don't already understand or necessarily relate to, people you don't like. You hear messages from a different kind of consciousness.
Another fallacy of this type of angry reading is that it often conflates the author with the character. In writing about his character's relation to love, Robinson says, "What Salter does is reveal his own incapacity for that huge and engulfing passion." Is she really trying to argue that Salter himself, that 88-year-old man with the straw hat and twinkling eyes, currently in a long-term attached relationship, by all accounts, is incapable of love? The capaciousness of this indictment reveals some sort of animus against a slippery archetype of the badly behaved man that defies the intellectual neatness of the argument. The elevation of Bowman to a full-scale Shakespearean villain, rather than a guy sort of sadly and sometimes joyously muddling through, reveals perhaps not enough conflict in the critic's own "human heart."
Roiphe, a journalism professor at New York University, is the author most recently of "Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages" and "In Praise of Messy Lives."