In the August 5, 2009 issue of Newsweek, Jennie Yabroff has an article called “Is Richard Russo a Misogynist?” in which she claims to show that Pulitzer Prize-winning, best-selling novelist Richard Russo…is a misogynist. (I believe this makes her title rhetorical, but I will leave that for composition teachers to debate.)
Before I look at Yabroff’s article, let me then respond simply to its title. I’ve read and studied and devoured a lot of literature, and done a great deal of all three within the auspices of what we call “the academy.” In The Academy, one pays a great deal of attention to a work’s biases. Is the author racist? Ageist? Hate little dogs too? No author is safe from the scrutiny of grad students, nor should any author be. While those writing dissertations on literature may not be rocket scientists, they do serve a function within reading society: To ferret out authorial context, prejudice, and weakness, so that we know Ernest Hemingway was a member of the He-Man Woman Haters Club.
All right, all right, I’m taking things a little too far, but you get my drift. It actually is useful, and sometimes even important, for us to know how a particular poet or novelist regards “the other.” Since the two largest human groups of otherness are men and women, it stands that we all might be interested in how writers of stature regard the opposite gender.
I say this all to make it clear that I take no umbrage with Yabroff’s motivation in challenging a high-profile novelist’s take on women. We should look at how Richard Russo creates, develops, and treats female characters; this is a premise that has launched hundreds of thousands of dissertations. We should also look at how Richard Russo treats his male characters.
Yet Jennie Yabroff doesn’t much bother with Russo’s treatment of men, whom he treats “pretty roughly” as she says Philip Roth and “a lot of Updike” do. She skips straight to calling Russo’s novels “fuzzy, golly-gee” books instead of talking about what he actually does do with male characters. Without going into a dissertation-like mode, let’s just say these characters wind up kidnapped, terrorized, haunted, and stuck head-first into a prickly hedge. There aren’t any angelic men in Russo’s novels.
Similarly, there aren’t any “single-minded” women in Russo’s novels, as Yabroff says – but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me first address a Yabroffian trope: She claims that the women in Russo’s novels are like Deborah, the wife in television’s “Everybody Loves Raymond” sitcom: “Smart, competent, emotionally mature but still fabulous-looking women act as foils for immature, self-deluded schmucks, then roll their eyes and sigh good-naturedly as they wait for their lesser halves to get with the program.” Yabroff says that Russo’s women “aren’t afforded the luxury of conflict or shortcomings.”
There are so many ways I could deal with this blanket and inaccurate generalization. Should I machine-gun quotes from “Empire Falls,” “Straight Man,” “The Whore’s Child,” and “Bridge of Sighs,” among other works by Russo? Or should I simply note that Russo has many different types of female characters, including villains, doormats, spitfires, and ingénues?
Perhaps I’ll note that I read Russo differently than Yabroff does. Where she sees foils, I see detailed portraits of women whose lives have been forever changed and sometimes ruined by the actions of men they’ve chosen to love and live with (both in bleak blue-collar towns and in cosmopolitan cities). Where Yabroff sees men simmering with resentment towards women, I see men who can’t live without women and know it – they’re trying mightily to figure out what lack in themselves causes them to need women yet also not treat them on an equal level.
Russo, to this reader, grapples with the twentieth century’s conflict about gender roles in an honest and yes, masculine way. Russo doesn’t always understand women. What man does? But Yabroff truly goes too far in the following passage from her article:
“In That Old Cape Magic, for example, there is a passage describing Griffin's father's decision to write his (dumb, bovine) fiancée's Ph.D. dissertation for her. ‘Granted, this was something she should've been able to do for herself, but so what? It could be their secret. She'd be so grateful her frozen p---y would thaw.’ Aside from the tired characterization of the fiancée as using sex as a bartering tool (a common tactic of Russo's perfect bitches), this passage is troubling because it's impossible to tell who's speaking. Griffin's father's point of view is not expressed anywhere else in the book, so it can't be his voice. Griffin himself couldn't know these details of his father's sex life. It must be the author himself.”
Um, Ms. Yabroff, it’s called “third-person narration.” Many authors use it! It allows a certain omniscience – i.e., one can know Griffin’s father’s views – without a character speaking. Griffin is, in a sense, translating his father’s “tired” characterization of his fiancé, a characterization that infuriates the son. Griffin wants nothing more, in “That Old Cape Magic,” than to understand the ineffable, transcendent something that makes a man and a woman hold on to a relationship despite not understanding each other in the slightest. Is that the author himself? I think so.