What Would Doris Lessing Say? The Implosion of Sex in the Arts

What would Doris Lessing say?

In the year of our Lord 2016, madness began to consume the world of arts.  Let us bear witness to a subset of that world, the  literary scene, which has imploded on itself with the new fashionable Puritanism and political correctness.

What would Doris Lessing say? Like Lessing, who, as she grew older, used to talk about the days “when she was still a woman,” I don’t feel particularly feminine these days; indeed, aging makes one less conscious of gender issues, and more exasperated with gender politics.  Lessing, who denied she was a feminist, even though we feminists claimed her,  pitied  men who lived in our times, because she thought – and this must have been the ’90s, so think how appalled she’d be now – they had lost their place in the world and weren’t allowed to fight back. No, I don’t go that far. But the current atmosphere of witch hunts and victim-heroines has had a political result:  the derailing of men’s careers on sexual misconduct charges has produced job opportunities for women.  

I read mostly women writers and respect women editors.  Still, at the back of my mind I am aware of the “erasures” that have plagued the literati in recent years. By 2017, I could not open a newspaper without finding a list of proscribed men.  On a personal level these men might have been cretins, but surely they couldn’t all be guilty.  (By the way, I kept expecting to see Cicero’s name;  he was proscribed – but for political reasons.)   Some of the misconduct scandals were horrifying, but most amounted to very little – is touching a woman’s back really sexual harassment?   My generation must have been tougher. 

In the aftermath of multiple scandals, women have become editors of prominent magazines.  Lorin Stein, the editor of The Paris Review, resigned from his job in 2017 during an internal investigation of his sexual misconduct. He made the requisite apologies for blurring the lines of professionalism with women employees and writers – and then disappeared from view.  Emily Neman succeeded him as editor in 2018, and Emily Stokes succeeded Neman in March 2021.  It’s a remarkable magazine – but two Emilys in a very short time!

What happened to Lorin Stein?  I don’t know.  But Katie Roiphe wrote about him in a brilliant article in 2018 at Harper’s, “The Other Whisper Network:  How Twitter feminism is bad for women.” 

…Not long ago, I was sitting on a friend’s couch, and she was talking about Lorin Stein, an acquaintance of mine for many years, with a special intensity. She also knew Lorin Stein, who was then still the editor of The Paris Review. Of course, Stein has since resigned under a cloud of acknowledged sexual misconduct….My friend was drinking chamomile tea and telling me second- and thirdhand stories about him with what, for a minute, I thought was gusto, but might have been political concern. “I like Lorin,” she told me. “I don’t have a personal stake in this.” She then informed me that he had sexually harassed two interns at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where he had worked before his Paris Review tenure, leading to hushed-up, sealed settlements. She delivered this piece of highly specific information so confidently that I did not stop and think, even though I teach in a journalism department: Is this factually correct?

…The next morning, I related the troubling new fact of the FSG settlements to a journalist friend. Could it be true? She checked it very thoroughly and called that evening to tell me she could find no truth at all to the settlement rumors. I was disgusted with myself for repeating what was probably a lie about someone I liked and had nothing against. What was wrong with me?

At The New York Review of Books, the editor Ian Buruma was fired  in 2018 after publishing a piece by former Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi, who had been accused by 20 women and acquitted of charges of one count of choking and four counts of sexual assault.  I never saw this unsavory article, and it is unlikely that I would have read it anyway, so I cannot judge whether it was good or bad – but clearly the timing was bad, and editors have to be savvy about those matters. 

Perhaps Lydia Polgreen, the  editor of the Huff Post, put it best when she  said amusingly, “I really think the outrage was over the sloppy editing and then his intellectually incoherent justification of the piece.Truly unworthy of a publication with NYRB’s aspiration.”

Let me just mention the cultural appropriation fanatics.  They consider it morally wrong to write about any group, race, religion, or country unless one is a member.  This is not even practicable, is it?  And yet a group of Latinx writers in 2020 protested at bookstores and sent death threats to Jeanine Cummins, a white writer whose novel, American Dirt, centered on a Mexican woman and her child fleeing from a cartel hit and finally making it  to the U.S. border.  Because of the death threats, Cummins canceled her book tour, but American Dirt was still an Oprah Club pick and a best-seller. 
Going off the track a bit:  may I admit I am glad that Johnny Depp won his defamation case against his ex-wife Amber Heard, who in 2018 published a short op/ed piece in The Washington Post saying she was a victim of domestic violence and implying that Depp had abused her?

I began to read about the trial after reading Marius Kociejowski’s memoir, A Factotum in the Book Trade.  Kociejowski writes that Depp came into Peter Ellis bookshop one day and bought a second edition of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.  Naturally this heightened my respect for this excellent actor, though I’m a fan anyway.  And during the trial, Depp was the more articulate and credible of the two.  I was also impressed by the women who testified on his behalf, among them Kate Moss, who assured them that Depp had never pushed her down a flight of stairs at a hotel – that he wasn’t even there when she fell. 

Ironically, Heard’s op/ed piece had repercussions for the careers of both actors.  After its publication, Depp lost a lucrative movie deal reprising his role in The Pirates of the Caribbean.   Heard hadn’t worked for a while. Why Heard had continued the battle in print is a mystery – they were already divorced.

It all makes me very tired. Doris Lessing, too, was tired of the battle of the sexes.  

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