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Feminism and The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub

April 23, 2014

Writing in EducationI was grateful to read a review of The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub in Issue 62 of Writing in Education (p-86), and I appreciate the reviewer, Holly Howitt-Dring, engaging with the book. There’s something very undignified about authors quibbling with  criticisms of their work, and I never challenge criticisms of a novel’s structure or style or subject or concept – apart from anything else, most of the time the critics have a point.

But the main criticism in this review is that the book is sexist:

Starting with the narrator’s love-interest, Lempi, who is initially characterized as not much more than pretty and “petite… with disproportionately large breasts”, female characters do not fare well. (…) However briefly female characters appear in the story, they are often superficial, unable to resist any sexual encounter submissive or otherwise. Elsie herself isn’t even able to shrug this off; she can’t resist her lover, Ramon, and is a sexual plaything for others throughout her story. It seems a shame that these characters play such highly genderized and sexualized parts, though our narrator seems to realize this reductiveness on a foray into Amsterdam’s Red Light district.

As a self-proclaimed feminist, who claims to have written a feminist book, I’m probably obliged to dispute this reading. Here’s a quick attempt:

1. A book is not sexist because it contains sexist characters. We have to consider to what extent the author endorses those characters’ views and intends for readers to identify with them. In The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub, the eponymous professor is a comic caricature of a disgraced, ageing chauvinist, and the narrator’s lust for his love interest is doomed, pathetic, and ridiculous: for instance, when they’re first alone together he defecates himself and throws his soiled pyjama bottoms from his bathroom window. Further, the narrator’s crush, Lempi, spends the last quarter of the book deconstructing herself as sexual object while foregrounding the consequences of hegemonic ideals of female desirability.

2. Regarding whether the narrator’s historical fiction is sexist, we need to consider whether it’s told from a biased perspective. For example, if a book is in part about sexual relations, are those relations invariably described from a male perspective with female characters presented as the objects of a male gaze? In Thrub, only once is sex described from a male character’s perspective, and then the character is a youth who, during the Ukrainian Civil War, tries and fails to lose his virginity with a prostitute. All other sexual experiences – including those of Elsie, Yulia, and Magdalena – are described from a female perspective.

3. To the charge that ‘women do not fare well’, women did not fare well in mid-20th-century Europe, and it would not be a feminist writing that sought to deny the exploitation and sexual violence that women faced in the past and continue to face today. For instance, it would be wrong for a social history of the Ukrainian Civil War to neglect the prevalence of prostitution and rape.

4. To the charge that ‘Elsie can’t resist her lover, Ramón,’ why should she resist her lover? Surely post-sexual revolution we can accept that women are not asexual and have as much right as men do to enjoy having sex with their partners.

5. To the charge that ‘Elsie is a sexual plaything to others throughout her story,’ besides Ramón the only other character with whom she has described sexual contact is her predatory boss, Menzies Flynn. It is accurate to describe her as Flynn’s sexual plaything, but as this traumatic incident is told from Elsie’s perspective, a better way to put it might be that she is a survivor of a sexual assault.

6. Finally, I agree that women in the book usually have ‘submissive’ roles during sex. The politics of desire are complex and beyond the scope of this response, but we should remember that all the sex described in the book occurred almost a century ago. Rightly or wrongly, it seemed plausible to me that the sex lives of my characters would in some ways reflect the prevailing patriarchal constructions of gender and sexuality. This is not meant to imply that there weren’t also alternatives: for instance, while in Barcelona, Elsie encounters women active in Mujeres Libres (Free Women), the revolutionary anarcha-feminist organisation whose members rejected church and state, mocked the idea of marriage, and in some cases pursued same-sex and polygamous relationships. But it was not my intention to write about these revolutionary heroes, and to readers who wish to learn more about their inspiring social revolution, I heartily recommend Martha Acklesberg’s Free Women of Spain.

I had hoped to write a feminist book, and I apologise if I have failed.

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