All posts filed under: Books

Science Fiction Purges its Problematic Past

Since 1991, the James Tiptree Junior Award has been given annually to a work of “science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.” The award was founded by two women science fiction writers, Pat Murphy and Karen Jay Fowler. From next year, it will be called the Otherwise Award. James Tiptree, Jr. was the pseudonym of Alice Sheldon. Born Alice Bradley in 1915, she travelled the world with her parents as a young child. In 1940, after a brief unhappy marriage, she joined the women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and worked in intelligence. She married Huntington “Ting” Sheldon in 1945, and in 1952 they both joined the CIA. She later earned her doctorate and took up writing. She wrote short stories and novels, but it is the former that stand out as truly remarkable. With prose as subtle and precise as the most refined literary fiction, she penned imaginative tales like “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” and “The Girl Who was Plugged In,” which became classics of science fiction and also important …

‘For the Love of Men’—A Review

A review of For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity by Liz Plank, St. Martin’s Press (September 2019) 336 pages. “There is no greater threat to humankind,” Liz Plank announces on the first page of her book For the Love of Men, “Than our current definitions of masculinity.” A bold claim. “Toxic masculinity,” Plank claims, underpins vast amounts of suffering across the globe. Lest this introduction lead one to expect an anti-male screed, Plank is at pains to insist that many of the victims of “toxic masculinity” are men themselves. Who could claim that masculinity cannot be problematic? Men are undeniably responsible for most of the rape and murder in the world, and suicide claims a disproportionate number of male lives. The male bias towards camouflaging vulnerability—expressed, for example, in men’s disproportionate unwillingness to address potential health problems, be they mental or physical—was more adaptive when familial life depended on men getting up to work and fight every day of every week, but it is less so in our more comfortable …

In Praise of Sylvia Plath’s Forgotten (Sorority) Sister

A tragic early death can do wonders for a writer’s reputation. On October 27, Google dedicated its search page to the late Sylvia Plath, who would have turned 87 that day, had she not taken her own life, at the age of 30, back in 1963. It seems unlikely that Google will ever dedicate its daily doodle to the life and work of, say Edward Field, a gifted poet of Plath’s generation who is still alive at the age of 95. Nor is the internet likely to ever light up with praise for the likes of Maxine Kumin, A.R. Ammons, David Bromige, Robert Bly, Lucille Clifton, or any number of other poets who lived too long to die tragically young. Denise Levertov, another excellent poet of roughly the same generation as Plath, is never likely to get the same attention. At the end of her life, she traveled to various conferences and lectured on the art of poetry and spirituality, while she was suffering from lymphoma and, eventually, pneumonia and acute laryngitis. A tragic early …

Gilead Resembles an Islamic Theocracy, not Trump’s America

Margaret Atwood, whose work I have long admired, is now being hailed as a prophet. It is quite the phenomenon. According to the pundits, Atwood’s 1985 work, The Handmaid’s Tale, which Mary McCarthy once savaged, and the recently-published 2019 sequel, The Testaments, are dystopias which aptly describe the contemporary climate change crisis, toxic environments, the rise in infertility, and the enslavement of women in Trump’s America. Is this all Atwood is writing about? Do the increasing restrictions on abortion in America parallel the extreme misogyny of Gilead, the theocratic state in Atwood’s saga? Is the unjust separation of mothers and children, a la Trump on the southern border, what Atwood has foretold? Every review and interview with Atwood that I could find strongly insists that this is the case. Michelle Goldberg, in the New York Times, attributes the current popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale to Trump’s ascendancy. She writes: “It’s hardly surprising that in 2016 the book resonated—particularly women—stunned that a brazen misogynist, given to fascist rhetoric and backed by religious fundamentalists was taking power.” Michiko Kakutani recently reviewed The Testaments for the New York …

The Problem with Sensitivity Readers

The idea of a sensitivity reader, the newest profession birthed in our politically correct times, instinctively does not sit well with writers. Because writing is not about protecting people’s feelings—it’s about provoking them. And nobody pursues a career in the arts because they like being told what they can and can’t say with their work. So I, like many writers, watched the influence of these “editors” grow with significant consternation. In theory, sensitivity readers simply review looking for anything that might offend the arbitrary sensitivities or transgress the invisible fault lines of the moment. In practice, I saw what looked like hordes of censors with the power to block the publication of Young Adult novels. I even watched as one professional sensitivity reader—a black, gay man—had his own novel sunk for not being sufficiently sensitive to diversity concerns. I shook my head and then, for some reason, I thought, “Well, I’d like to try that.” Earlier this year, between the final passes on my book Stillness is the Key, I told my publisher that I …

How to Be a Dictator—A Review

A review of How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century by Frank Dikötter, Bloomsbury Press (December 2019) 304 pages One of the first things to emerge from Professor Frank Dikötter’s eagerly awaited new book How to Be a Dictator is that it is a stressful vocation: there are rivals to assassinate, dissidents to silence, kickbacks to collect, and revolutions to suppress. Quite hard work. Even the most preeminent ones usually meet ignominious ends. Mussolini: summarily shot and strung upside down over a cheering crowd. Hitler: suicide and incineration. Ceausescu: executed outside a toilet block. Or consider the fate of Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie: rumoured to have been murdered on orders of his successor Mengistu Haile Mariam, he was buried underneath the latter’s office desk. Not the most alluring career trajectory, one might say. Dikötter’s monograph is a study of twentieth century personality cults. He examines eight such cults: those created by Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Kim Il-sung, Duvalier, Ceausescu, and Mengistu. For them, cultism was not mere narcissism, it was …

My Book Defending Free Speech Has Been Pulled

I recently completed a book defending free speech. Emerald Press scheduled it for publication but then decided not to proceed. Here’s what it said about the book in Emerald’s September 2019 catalogue: In Defense of Free Speech: The University as Censor Author James R. Flynn, University of Otago, New Zealand Synopsis: The good university is one that teaches students the intellectual skills they need to be intelligently critical—of their own beliefs and of the narratives presented by politicians and the media. Freedom to debate is essential to the development of critical thought, but on university campuses today free speech is restricted for fear of causing offence. In Defense of Free Speech surveys the underlying factors that circumscribe the ideas tolerated in our institutions of learning. James Flynn critically examines the way universities censor their teaching, how student activism tends to censor the opposing side and how academics censor themselves, and suggests that few, if any, universities can truly be seen as ‘good.’ In an age marred by fake news and social and political polarization, In …

Michel Houellebecq: Populism’s Prophet

In the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, more newspaper op-eds and opinion pieces in magazines catering to the “well-informed public” have been written about the populist phenomenon than any other topic. Populism has been unpacked, dissected, defined, and analysed, and the results have all been discouraging. Identifying the cause or causes of populism is no simple matter. Does populism stem from dissatisfaction with the economy, immigration, or some combination of issues? When surveys are taken of populist voters, these broad categories are used to determine the reason for a voter’s decision. Lost in these statistical analyses of populism, however, is any real understanding of the lives and motivations of the individuals who end up making political decisions. In an age of ubiquitous scientific polling and surveying, of commentary and opinion, it is curious that perhaps the most powerful and accurate examination of the forces behind the modern populist groundswell should come from a French novelist. In the press, Michel Houellebecq has held the distinction of being France’s literary, right-wing enfant terrible. …

William Peter Blatty’s Counter-Countercultural Parable

In her new book Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics (excerpted in Quillette on August 27), essayist and cultural critic Mary Eberstadt documents just how damaging the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and its normalization of divorce in particular, has been to America’s children. She mentions many publications that comment on “the correlations between crumbling family structure and various adverse results,” particularly for the children of divorce. The authors she cites include former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, social scientist James Q. Wilson, and Elizabeth Marquardt, author of Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce. A writer she doesn’t mention, however, is William Peter Blatty, author of the blockbuster 1971 horror novel The Exorcist. Those who have never read the novel, or are familiar only with its 1973 cinematic incarnation, probably believe the book to be a potboiler about demonic possession. But it is also an allegorical warning about the importance of the traditional family unit and the devastation wrought when it breaks down. Curiously, this aspect of the …