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December 02, 2016

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Thank you for posting this, and for encouraging discussion about it. I read all four of the Neapolitan novels, and was overcome with awe at how beautifully Ferrante described the relationship between these two women, which takes many turns, the way the story is placed in the modern history of Italy, and the way that authoritarianism (in the form of the mafia (Camorra) of Naples).

There are male friendship books that I also love, so maybe that's just a theme that I enjoy exploring: A Summons to Memphis, by Peter Taylor, is one, and American Pastoral, by Philip Roth (a book that I wish would have brought him the Nobel Prize).

But the Ferrante quartet truly is a feminist masterpiece. It very persuasively reflects the experience of women of that era. I loved it, and will read and refer to it again and again.

I see that I didn't edit my comment, so sorry for the incomplete sentences. I'll use this opportunity to recommend the entire quartet, not only for the story of the women, but because we are living in a time where violence and corruption are imminent under Trump. Having to accommodate that in one's daily life is a particularly timely aspect of the novels.

I've not read fiction in such a long time, unless it was trying to get through something written in Japanese. However, when I was a kid, I ate up all of the Doc Savage 'Man of Bronze' novels and now I'm wondering how one could write a Doc Savage novel where he is a woman and if that is internalized misogyny? (there was Pat Savage, Doc Savage's cousin, who appeared towards the end of the run, but I'm thinking that doesn't count) I've got no problem imagining a female character as smart as Sherlock Holmes, but I can't seem to think of a female Doc Savage...

How do you separate the M/F stuff that is contained in the fictional characters, imposed by the writer, and a product of the reader?

I was going to say "strong F chars" in some of the non-Laundry novels of Stross (Rule 34, etc). But I really don't know if those characters are just a matter of a M writer interpreting a F character.

I have noticed some differences between the fiction of F vs M writers: some 'Bond' thriller novel written by a F author (at least pen name) that seemed to obsess about details of food and clothes...rather than the CLEARLY more appropriate obsessions with alcohol, firearms and cars. Is that just me? Or what the writer was trying for? Or an accidental consequence?

If you're not conscious of your own misogyny (whatever your gender) that doesn't mean you're free of it; more likely, it means you haven't worked very hard to dig it out. This stuff is deep, and will take generations to get rid of.

It will take generations to (mostly) get rid of. But let me suggest that one step down that road is for some people to get rid of it. You don't want to tell them that they just haven't worked hard to dig it out. That kind of reaction actually reinforces the attitude you are trying to get rid of.

Another step for some people to be raised free of it. You can, initially, regard them as part of a subculture; one which you want to replace the dominant culture.

None of this is to say that there aren't lots of people who who fit the "haven't looked" label. Just that they aren't the whole story.

The most common form of my internalized misogyny is that, in general, I find any super smart/tough/superior female character in the future much more believable than one set in the past. A random thought I had one day now given a name.

Just because I haven't encountered the term before, does the "Mary Sue" phenomena also apply with male authors writing about female characters? That is, would Telzey Amberdon be one (she seems to fit most of the other characteristics), even though James Schmitz was a man.

I have noticed some differences between the fiction of F vs M writers: some 'Bond' thriller novel written by a F author (at least pen name) that seemed to obsess about details of food and clothes...rather than the CLEARLY more appropriate obsessions with alcohol, firearms and cars.

Snarki, interestingly, in some of the original Bond books, Fleming goes into quite a lot of detail about the women's clothes, and the food and wine that Bond orders for them (!) in restaurants. I think it was to illustrate his supposedly impeccable upper class taste and connoiseurship, a common feature of European upper class playboys like e.g. Gianni Agnelli in those days. Fleming went to Eton and Sandhurst and was in the Secret Service, and Bond was apparently a kind of idealised self-portrait.

GftNC: I've noticed similar differences in non-Bond mystery/thriller novels, but you certainly have a good point. I haven't read many Bond novels at all, so that might be part of it.

But I've never seen much of a gender difference in SF novels; whether that is because the authors having different attitudes, or that the setting makes it implausible, or that I don't care for the "military SF" sub-genre, I couldn't say for sure.

I admit that Mary Sues can be annoying, and that goes for male and female Mary Sues. So much depends on what the author does with them. I remember getting fed up with the hero in one of Dorothy Dunnett's books. He was just too good at everything, and that ruined the story for me. Most Mary Sues have some kind of blind spot or tragic flaw, like King Arthur, if only to give the story a real challenge that they can overcome, or not.

Now and then I'll be reading something and have to take break and remind myself that I'm only reading a story, so it's a fantasy. Why not a beautiful young shoe designer in a nation noted for its shoe designs? Sometimes I'll be reading something biographical and have to take a break and remind myself the story is real, and that some people lead pretty amazing lives. I was reading about the obscure star shaped towers in backwater China and Francoise Darragon who has been studying them - playgirl, polo player, heiress, explorer. She's right out of a Jilly Cooper novel, but even Jilly Cooper never had one of her characters recovering from an altitude induced stroke at the Lhasa Holiday Inn Express because it was the only hotel in town with room service.

It's hard to say about male and female writers and what they'll describe. The preface to 'The Story of O' argues that only a woman could have written such erotica with its emphasis on clothing and the like. It had its moment, just like '9 1/2 Weeks' and '50 Shades of Gray'. I'm willing to believe a woman wrote it, but it's usually the men who have the clothing fetishes.

Kaleberg, Pauline Reage's real name was revealed to be Anne Cecile Desclos after she died in 1989 or so. I must say, bracketing the Story of O in with 50 Shades and 9 1/2 weeks shocked me a bit, because despite the S+M subject matter being similar, 50 Shades is, I believe (I have not read it), more or less unreadable, whereas the Story of O is generally acknowledged to be a serious work of literary art.

Regarding Dorothy Dunnett's heroes, I thought the 5 Lymond books wonderful, but I agree that by the time she wrote the Niccolo books she had gone a bit over the top, in complication as well as everything else. Talk about bringing history alive though!

Thanks for pointing us towards Francoise (or Frederique) Darragon though. I've just read up on her a bit - what an extraordinary woman she sounds. Also, the star-shaped towers are marvellous. It's good to be reminded of the existence of such gifted mavericks; one of our most notable ones, Paddy Leigh Fermor, died recently, you may be interested if you don't know of him:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Leigh_Fermor

One of my favourite strong female characters (and heroes):
https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/music/martha-argerich-is-a-legend-of-the-classical-music-world-but-she-doesnt-act-like-one/2016/12/01/117095b4-b104-11e6-be1c-8cec35b1ad25_story.html?

Her former husband Steven Kovacevich isn't a bad pianist himself...

Kaleberg,

I think that "clothing fetish" is an exaggeration. However, the traditional male clothing is pretty uniform: A black suit-like costume, a white shirt and a tie. The differences lie in the cut, in the fabric and in the small adornments. Good taste, snobbery and vulgarity lie in relatively small details. Female clothing is so much more varied that details are not quite as important.

The worst is the military uniform. There, good taste and style is expressed by extremely little details, and dandyness is demonstrated by stylish transgressions against uniform rules, which, by necessity, are almost invisible to civilian eye.

So, I would simply say that Mr. Fleming came from an environment almost bound to create clothing fetishes.

So my inner misogyny, unknown even to myself, has been outed by 007?

There's a certain satisfaction to that, although my confidence is shaken, not stirred.

I reread all the Fleming novels fairly recently. They are strikingly, sometimes even childishly misogynist. And the colonial attitudes already anachronistic when they were written. And fantastically snobbish.

But brilliant archetypes of the thriller genre.

I just read the first Ferrante novel, when I realized that I'd been skipping them because the covers were so demure. Two hundred pages in, I realized it felt like _Ender's Game_ but Ender is in a postwar rubble zone, not plucked up into specialized schooling.

Say what you will about 1970s fashion (and I certainly have): it was a brief moment when men's fashions were trying to break out of the box they had been in since the middle of the 19th century.

As someone who spent their undergrad years partially brainwashed by critical theory, I would throw the cold water of caution over the premise of the post. You may be correct in your specific instances (I can't say from lack of exposure), but you're espousing an all-encompassing interpretive model which smartly concludes that there is and can be only one true understanding of the origin and meaning of phenomena... which is, conveniently enough, the analytical perspective you've adopted. There is some kinship to selection bias in how it usually plays out...

NV:

Could you translate that from the Academese? What do you think the premise of my post is?

It somewhat looks like you've decided on solving a problem as described by a particular critical viewpoint and therefore are determined to find instances of it in everything. Consider your example of the hypothetical "more acceptable" male character as compared to Lila: you describe them as "multi-talented and exceptionally good-looking"... whereas Lila is described in superlatives. A male character who was not simply good at many things but the best ever at them would be equally hard to swallow, and would quite reasonably invoke calls of "Mary Sue" or "idealized author insertion avatar" or what have you. Further, a narrator does not mean there cannot be an author insertion avatar separate from that (though my first instinct in reading the blurb above is to question the reliableness of the narrator describing everything the other is doing as extremely perfect). The narrator can just as easily be intended as the reader's more mundane or even fawning POV.

In general, though, my point was cautioning against embracing a generalized interpretive theory when approaching all literature, as it's a dangerous game to play. My time spent in that particular trap was quite instructive in demonstrating the ease with which everything not a nail could be reframed as one for my critical hammer, but all that proved was that I could be flexible in my understanding of what I read, not that I had "discovered" the true underlying meaning, authorial intent, or driving psychology behind a given text. People can reach a single endpoint from different sources, and by different routes, and authors and their texts are no different...

*approaching all literature, let alone more than just literature

Just getting around to this. It might be worth considering that what you were objecting to in the novel might not be the characterization of Lila, but rather the way that the first person narrator, Elena, perceives and characterizes Lila, especially through the haze of nostalgia. As NV points out, there is the issue of how reliable the narrator is. And the young, female narrator needs a character against which to measure herself in order to show the lessons being learned during the coming-of-age. Her older voice -- the one telling the story -- reflects on the younger self and compares her to her "special" friend as a way of commenting on and highlighting the path to her own maturity.

Nothing says that the narrator's view of her friend has to be accurate; it's entirely subjective.

I don't know (or care much) about the Mary Sue prototype. And, although it's interesting to read critics, I'm not that interested myself in analyzing the novels as a literary reviewer might. I think the quartet of novels is essential reading in that it fairly and authentically depicts women, both in their relationships with each other, with men, and with their larger social and political environment.

To me, the books were spellbinding. The depiction of post-WWII Italy is something that we (most of us, anyway, as Americans of baby boomer age) read about peripherally in the news from time to time, but didn't really understand. The '60s and '70s counterculture is described in a way that I recognize, but brings a new perspective on the politics of a very unstable post-war Italy (one that was influenced by the US, in part because our long occupation of Europe was a legacy of our fight against totalitarianism, something that seems relevant right this minute).

I don't know how many people commenting here have read the books. I would encourage it. It would be a wonderful way to escape from our current "troubles", but to come away with something that might help us cope.

sapient:

I am definitely passing your commentary on to my Mom--though honestly, in times of Stress like this she goes back to Wodehouse as the perfect combo of wit, unreality, and VOLUME.

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