About once a month, I read something that makes me think: this just might be the dumbest thing ever written. Usually, it isn't, of course. But this piece in today's Washington Post might be the genuine article:
""Women 'Falling for Obama,' " the story's headline read. Elsewhere around the country, women were falling for the presidential candidate literally. Connecticut radio talk show host Jim Vicevich has counted five separate instances in which women fainted at Obama rallies since last September. And I thought such fainting was supposed to be a relic of the sexist past, when patriarchs forced their wives and daughters to lace themselves into corsets that cut off their oxygen.
I can't help it, but reading about such episodes of screaming, gushing and swooning makes me wonder whether women -- I should say, "we women," of course -- aren't the weaker sex after all. Or even the stupid sex, our brains permanently occluded by random emotions, psychosomatic flailings and distraction by the superficial. Women "are only children of a larger growth," wrote the 18th-century Earl of Chesterfield. Could he have been right?"
That's near the beginning. It just gets worse and worse and worse, without the slightest hint of irony, until it reaches its finale:
"I am perfectly willing to admit that I myself am a classic case of female mental deficiencies. I can't add 2 and 2 (well, I can, but then what?). I don't even know how many pairs of shoes I own. I have coasted through life and academia on the basis of an excellent memory and superior verbal skills, two areas where, researchers agree, women consistently outpace men. (An evolutionary just-so story explains this facility of ours: Back in hunter-gatherer days, men were the hunters and needed to calculate spear trajectories, while women were the gatherers and needed to remember where the berries were.) I don't mind recognizing and accepting that the women in history I admire most -- Sappho, Hildegard of Bingen, Elizabeth I, George Eliot, Margaret Thatcher -- were brilliant outliers.
The same goes for female fighter pilots, architects, tax accountants, chemical engineers, Supreme Court justices and brain surgeons. Yes, they can do their jobs and do them well, and I don't think anyone should put obstacles in their paths. I predict that over the long run, however, even with all the special mentoring and role-modeling the 21st century can provide, the number of women in these fields will always lag behind the number of men, for good reason.
So I don't understand why more women don't relax, enjoy the innate abilities most of us possess (as well as the ones fewer of us possess) and revel in the things most important to life at which nearly all of us excel: tenderness toward children and men and the weak and the ability to make a house a home. (Even I, who inherited my interior-decorating skills from my Bronx Irish paternal grandmother, whose idea of upgrading the living-room sofa was to throw a blanket over it, can make a house a home.) Then we could shriek and swoon and gossip and read chick lit to our hearts' content and not mind the fact that way down deep, we are . . . kind of dim."
Note to Charlotte Allen: if you find yourself having to argue that you are an idiot in order to make your case, you might consider the possibility that an idiot like yourself is unlikely to get much right about women, or for that matter about anything. You might therefore ask yourself what earthly purpose it serves to have idiots like the one you take yourself to be publishing their thoughts. Is your gig at the Post noticeably different from those game shows in which we get to watch people humiliating themselves on national TV? If so, how?
A few more particular points. First, talking about what "we" women (or we liberals/conservatives, or whatever) is almost always just intellectual laziness. Unless the claim is obviously true (e.g., "we human beings are mammals"), the appropriate response is: what do you mean "we", white man?
Second, romance novels* (update below the fold) are not "books", as that word is normally used. They are either tools for relaxation or the female equivalent of porn. They should therefore be compared not to War and Peace, but to either Ultimate Sudoku or the Hustler centerfold. Personally, I think they come out fine in either comparison, but that's probably because I'm just a dumb woman.
Third, the idea that brain size has anything to do with intelligence was disproven ages ago (at least, if we're talking about the normal variation in human brain size, as opposed to the difference between human and planarian brains.)
Fourth: doesn't the Post have editors whose job is to prevent this sort of trainwreck? If so, the editor responsible for allowing this column to waste perfectly good space in the Washington Post should be fired.
UPDATE: Gary and others were offended by the part about romance novels. I think I didn't make my point particularly clearly, so let me try to explain what I meant.
First, a clarification: I meant, and should have said, genre romance novels. I did not mean Jane Austen. Moreover, I meant genre romance novels, not genre fiction generally. In general, I do not think that points made about one type of genre fiction apply to all types of genre fiction; in this specific case, I think that both science fiction and fantasy, for instance, are quite different from romance novels in some of the respects I was thinking of.
On to the main point: as I read the WaPo piece, the part about romance novels was meant to imply that women's taste in fiction runs to romance novels, which (according to Charlotte Allen) don't stack up well against fiction generally. My point was that that is not the relevant comparison. If you want to make some sort of stupid generalization about women, then it matters what the male analog of a romance novel is. If, for instance, many women read genre romances for some of the same reasons that lead many men to read/watch/look at porn, then it would be silly to draw any conclusion at all about men and women from a comparison of romance novels to novels generally. It's not the right comparison. I stand by this point.
Note: this does not imply, and I did not mean it to imply, anything about the quality of genre romances. I honestly think not just that most of them stack up pretty well against your average Hustler centerfold, which isn't hard, but that some of them are quite good.
About whether genre romance novels are "books", as that word is normally used: that was undoubtedly the wrong way to put what I had in mind, and I regret having put it that way. However, I also think that there is a decent point here, which I expressed in a needlessly dumb way. What I meant was:
Genre romance novels are, in my experience, written according to very serious constraints. There are plot constraints, characterization constraints, all kinds of constraints. I don't really know enough about science fiction to make a comparison, but it would not surprise me at all to learn that the strictures on romance novels are much more stringent than those that govern SF. They are certainly more stringent than those that govern fiction generally.
When I assess a non-genre novel, I assess it as a work of imagination, in which the author is free to do as he or she wants. I take the author to have a kind of complete freedom: there she sits, confronted by a blank book, and she can do whatever she wants with it. Seeing what she ends up doing with all that freedom, and deciding what I think of it, is what criticism of normal novels is all about.
Assessing genre romances is different, precisely because there are so many rules. I do not think badly of a particular genre romance because the author should not have made the hero so strong, noble, and self-contained, or because its heroine should not be so completely ignorant of her own charms, or because some complication prevents the hero and heroine from recognizing their attraction to one another until they are forced into close proximity by some unexpected turn of events. Those are the rules. And I assess a genre romance novel not by its quality as a work of creation ex nihilo, but as a novel written according to those rules.
I think it was Tanya Modliewski who wrote that genre romance is, for this reason, best thought of as something closer to a very constrained kind of performance than to non-genre novels. If I recall correctly (can't find the book, but I am trying to give credit), she said: think of football. Football is not like a sort of spontaneous dance, nor do you assess it primarily for its imaginative virtues. In football, there are a very strict set of rules, and those rules allow a limited set of basic options for a team. You only rarely get to assess a particular player or team for something like: coming up with a whole new option, or for any other work of pure creative imagination. Normally, you assess them for the way in which they do what they have to do, within the rules. You ask: do they do it well? with flair? Are they good at picking the best of the (relatively small number of) options that the rules allow -- e.g., passing when they should, and running when they should? Do they do it with athleticism and grace and speed?
Similarly, Modliewski argued (I think), with romance novels. The basic parameters are laid down in advance, and what matters, if you're writing a genre romance at all, is the grace and style and beauty with which you do it. In this, genre romance is strikingly different from non-genre novels (I'm leaving other genres out, as I noted above). Moreover, for anyone who knows the rules of genre romance, reading a genre romance would have to be different from reading a work that had no such rules, in the way that, for someone who knew the rules, watching the short program in figure skating that includes the compulsory elements would have to be different from watching a freestyle program.
With this as backdrop, when I said that "romance novels are not "books", as that word is normally used", I should, first of all, have said not books but novels, and specifically non-genre fiction. For better or for worse, I think that genre romance (again, I'm agnostic on, because largely ignorant of, other genres) is a different thing than non-genre fiction, and different in large part because it is best seen as a highly constrained performance -- as more like the compulsory program in figure skating, while non-genre fiction is like the freestyle part, where you really can do whatever you want.
I did not, and do not, mean this claim to imply anything at all about the merits of genre romance novels. Even my original claim only implies this if you think (which I assume no one does) that books are more valuable than anything else, or that if something isn't a book in the normal sense, it must be less good. This is obviously false (a great guitar solo or a Beethoven sonata is not lacking because it is not a book, in the normal or any other sense.) I do think genre romance novels are a different sort of thing from non-genre novels. But that doesn't imply anything at all about whether the kind of thing they are is a better or worse thing to be.
Again, though, I was deeply unclear, for which I am sorry.