Say you wrote a book about a person in search of meaning. Imagine that it was widely praised and made you lots of money because it was so relatable and yet touched a nerve that was rarely reachable. Then imagine another writer wrote a similar book and it eclipsed yours. The media couldn’t stop comparing the two of you, and suddenly, you who had been this visionary was now seen as a hack, because you had been writing about women, but the other writer was a woman. But how unfair to be judged only because of your juxtaposition to this other writer. And say your books had nothing in common, really, they were about completely different things. Say yours was about a woman coming to terms with herself and the world, and the other writer’s was about an unreliable narrator who hated other women as well as herself. In her story, say men were vulgar and society in general was to be mistrusted. No narrator, no character, was reliable, a trick the writer played on the reader, with whom she wasn’t in solidarity. Say if you had to make this writer’s work multidimensional, it would be with a jack in the box that popped out at the end of the final chapter, punched the reader in the nose, and cried: Joke’s on you! Whereas say yours was like a gentle reminder, the lapping of waves…
Say you read every review of this writer’s book and each time were filled with an annoyance bordering on rage. But not everything is about comparison and jealousy – say you told this to yourself – sometimes that down-pitted feeling is a foreboding ennui of a dangerous entity with power claiming to be something real, something safe. Say you were bothered by the idea that this writer, who you – as a man who loved women – felt was actually dangerous to women, that she was usurping the language of women, of their struggles, using it to perpetuate more struggle, and say you were enraged that she was considered some sort of creative sage who had managed to tap into the secret of all humanity that, so far, had remained elusive. And while on a sentence level you could agree the woman had good style and was willing to take risks, imagine you felt there to be a level of acceptance and celebration around her work that appeared to be missing something, which, in an industry that almost always disagrees, irked you, as if there was an unspoken agreement among reviewers that this author was off limits to critique.
Maybe you even came up with a theory of why. First, say you thought it was the writer’s approach to her craft. Each of her books (pretend there were more than just the one) seemed to be predicated on some dare she had given herself, a challenge or self-imposed timeline, some kind of useful tool that seemed less about a magical current coursing through her than a careerist attempting to achieve prolificity. Say each of the writer’s anecdotes around her process succeeded in raising her further atop her pedestal of ingenuity, as if her genius could never be replicable. But few people, if any, seemed to inquire if these structural challenges served as a shield against future failure. Say your theory was that she would debase her own process right up front so others couldn’t devalue it first. It was the same usurpation, to use the words and the phrasings of the struggle, to embody the backbone of the broken back but also be the metal bar giving the beating.
Say you were a nice man who cared deeply about people. Say you had a wife and when you thought about it, when people would ask your wife about herself, she would make a self-deprecating remark, so if she failed to impress she would have already proven her unworthiness to herself. Pretend you saw her do this, and even though it saddened you, it was clearly a way she felt she could retain control. And, certainly, since women had been judged harshly throughout history and had learned to judge themselves harshly, it would make sense for a woman like this writer – a woman not that different from your wife – to approach her own success with a certain distrust.
But even still. Say while you were generous with your support for other writers (so generous that you felt you spent too much time giving and didn’t keep enough for yourself), say the woman writer you were always compared to seemed not to read anyone at all, actually, as if she were a blank slate impossible to imprint upon, original and completely pure. Say she had no circle of artists with whom she shared her work, say she refused to endorse other people’s books, say she refused to ally herself with anyone at all. As if she were her own island, which would have made you lonely, but which only seemed to elevate her cachet. Say this woman had been given the status of a thought leader who explored the darker parts of the human psyche, but say you knew she was not, in fact, subversive, that there had been other women writers who called attention in more interesting ways to the human condition and the systems of power that sought to dominate the weak in service of the powerful. Say you wanted the media to shed a little of that light on them, too, to show that this writer being a woman with guts wasn’t, in fact, such a transgressive act, and that other women had been brilliant and obscene for decades!
Say you said all this, published essays about it, and say you were punished for it, even though, in many ways, you were right. Because, after all, you’re a man, and say – this is hypothetical – say you were reacting in part out of spite, out of envy for her success. One day pretend you realised that your anger was likely a misplacement of your dissatisfaction with your own life, a projection of your own inner disquiet, your own lack of success, your discomfort with the changing implications of your own career. And yet, as true as this might have felt, say you were still convinced that it was also possible that the woman writer was a red herring created by the male-driven collective unconscious (of which you were a part, but a less toxic part) to throw society off the scent of entrenched systems that were useful to those in power, writers like you (but not you!). Say you wrote an essay about how this writer was a safe outlaw, and that getting behind her didn’t start a revolution, but kept a real revolution from happening. Say you wrote about how this writer’s characters were misanthropic, how her narratives sought to destroy the people they saw as weak, that the reader was not challenged to see themselves in her characters as a way to liberate them from a violent part of the human condition by putting it under a magnifying glass and studying it with metaphor or myth. That they were not challenged, because the writer did not challenge herself. And that the reader continued on a crusade to spit on all those who came across their path, flipping through pages vehemently but with little purpose. And because this woman writer had been celebrated by the literary establishment, say you wrote in this hypothetical piece that the reader could think: ‘I can enjoy this violence. I can be violent, too.’ Say you wrote that the reader was offered a stage for their performance of desire to continue hating women and for women to continue hating themselves, which served as a useful tool for the men in power and the women who were their handmaidens. This woman writer, you might say, asked us to put readers seeking truth in the same category as readers who found pleasure in picking their scabs, as if bringing oneself to orgasm was the same as cutting oneself. Say you wrote that in an essay, that you titled it something really witty and no one thought it was funny at all.
Is it not the case that artists can offer a hand to humanity through a portrait of vulnerability that provides a road map to the unconscious? Writers can say the unsayable, so it is said, so that it exists? Shame is less unthinkable if it is shared? Say you said this writer did not position herself as one of the people, that she was a fraud. And then you spent years consumed with anger about her. But then, even though you knew you were right, and some others agreed with you, say you became tired of being so angry. Say you began to wonder what bone you had to pick with this idea, anyway, what was it to you, what did you want? To become immortalised yourself? To escape the disdain of the public? To make lots of money, to buy sports cars so as to drape over them in photographs and discuss ideas about the world? Say you asked yourself these questions in the shower, in the bath, on your walk to work, on your walk back home.
There is much to be said about a society that places value on a writer like this woman as someone representing progress. If anything, you would think, she offered society the space to question its own attachment to genius as a commodity that could be controlled by the media in order to sell the newest version of empire. If all this woman writer was really doing was playing a game with society, asking us to idolise her while enjoying how stupid she made us look, then in hindsight you might say she did a wonderful job. Say you wondered if her career had been a performance all along, and not the one you thought it had been. Maybe her purpose was not to write great books with many universes inside them but books that exposed the universes outside of them, books that exposed us by forcing us to identify with something horrible that she had created, that was meant as a mirror for us. And that you had played into it and exposed your own ambition, your own desire, in all its qualifications, and that she had wanted you to. Say you found you had no more use for these kinds of systems or even for the conversations about breaking them down. Say you asked yourself, what if I moved away from critique and instead realised that this writer was a genius, and that a country needed geniuses for nation building? And that most geniuses are manufactured, and true geniuses are often misinterpreted, if they existed at all?
Say you died in the middle of all this hypothetical thinking. Say you died and you were living and dying at a time when no one could attend funerals. Say your obituary talked mostly of the fact that you used to take long walks with your many small dogs, and that you had inspired your children to become better. Say if you had rated your life based on inner harmony and affection, you would have gotten a ten, but if you had rated it based on authority and creative power, you would have gotten a five. Would this have been enough, a ten and a five? Say you never knew, because you died without knowing you were going to die. But what if you had tried to consider these concepts in the way you had always considered the role of genius in cultural transformation, if you had considered it before you died, spent time dissecting it, laying all the pieces out on the table, picking them up one by one, looking at them closely, then rearranging them. What if you had said, my small dogs and I will go down a new path today, one that is harder to find, harder to follow, steeper and covered with slippery moss. Say before you died you had gone down that path with your small dogs and you had discovered a cave, and in that cave was an old woman who could reveal the meaning of life. Say you had spent time in the cave with the woman and she had given you a prediction, that your life would end, that no one would be able to attend your funeral, that you would have an obituary that referred more to your many small dogs than to your genius. Would it have been better to not have reached the cave, to not have known how it would have ended for you? Or would you have rather died having found the cave, died knowing that you would die a ten and a five, but that the ten was the more important number? Or would you have longed to make the five into a ten, too, so you could die a ten and a ten? Or would you have made your five a ten and your ten a five, if you could have, reversing them? Would you have traded your many small dogs in order that the five become a ten? Hypothetically.