Friday, May 8, 2020

The rewards of men (on the backs of women)?

The fallout from the most recent batch of Pulitzer Prize winners has been slow and painful to watch. No, I'm not talking about politics, rather the award given to editor, writer, and translator Benjamin Moser, for his biography of Susan Sontag.

As many of you probably already know, I don't belong to the world of publishing or translating or literature at all. This blog (and associated social media accounts) are all I have when it comes to "associating" with the literary world. I've never met Benjamin Moser and until I started writing this post, I had no idea what he looked like or his age (I assumed, incorrectly, that he was much older and more established than he is, which reveals quite a bit more about my assumptions than anything about Moser himself) or really much about him. My closest interaction with him, you might say, is that I read (and deeply did not enjoy) his translation of Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star. I have also spent the past several years working my way through Lispector's Complete Stories (tr. Katrina Dodson), a book that Moser edited and for which he wrote the introduction.

Allow me to linger on this latter work for a moment, both because I like it so much more than The Hour of the Star and because it leads to the point of this post. One of the first things I noticed when I perused Complete Stories was that quote by Gregory Rabassa in the author description: "that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf". I remember the quote viscerally, because it thoroughly disturbed me. What sort of quote is that? And why was it included alongside other praise of Lispector as the greatest Brazilian writer of all times or a splendid writer or whatever? Setting aside the sexism of Rabassa's individual statement (though it is hard not to pause and reflect on how the statement is offensive from multiple perspectives), there is an important question to be asked in terms of perpetuating this sexism. Did this otherwise slick New Directions hardcover really need that quote? The answer is a clear no. There was absolutely no need to include a sexist quote in this edition. Shouldn't a series editor catch that sort of thing...? Later, it even began to bother me that the cover image simply focuses on Lispector's face. On the front, we have piercing eyes, on the spine, her mouth, on the back cover her hand resting under her neck. It's all extraordinarily striking, but I can hardly imagine Julio Cortázar, for example, having a cover like that. Sexist? Questionable. Unsettling? Definitely.

The truth is, I thought little of the editorial decisions for Complete Stories or the Lispector literary universe (LLU, naturally) until reading Magdalena Edwards' essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books last year. The essay spent quite a bit of time making the rounds in the translated literature community, with many translators taking Edwards' side and others raising (both privately and publicly) their own issues with Moser. In the essay, Edwards lays out her troubled experience translating Lispector's The Chandelier under Moser's editorial pen. Beyond what seems to be numerous cases of miscommunication between editor and translator, Edwards was eventually downgraded to co-translator (with her name appearing after Moser's) and left bemused by Moser's involvement in the project overall. As she writes: "The truth is that Moser tried to get me fired, arguing that my completed manuscript was not up to snuff, that my level of Portuguese was insufficient, and that he would have to rewrite every line of my translation. What happened?" The remainder of the essay tries to argue that there was a lot more than simply a quality argument between Moser and Edwards (and it is worth noting that Edwards doesn't mention anything about how the final translation looked compared to her original work), rather that Moser has a persistent - indeed, pervasive - aloof and possessive attitude towards women writers, scholars, and translators.

I cannot - and will not - make any claims to knowing the truth in Edwards and Moser's interactions, though it does leave me with many questions. But Edwards raises several points in her essay that made me revisit my initial discomfort in Complete Stories. More than the inclusion of Rabassa's sexist quote, I found myself flipping through the introduction of Complete Stories yet again and marveling at quiet, almost invisible sexist threads. For instance, Moser writes: "Traditionally "female" subjects - marriage and motherhood, kids and clothes - had, of course, been treated before. They are all here. But alongside them the little dramas of women's lives gain expression, sometimes for the first time[...]" Moser then goes on to list some of these "little dramas", including the shock value of reading stories about older women (and particularly, older women's sexuality).

While I don't disagree with the latter point, I struggle to swallow the condescension in the first. Moser is writing about women's lives as a uniform, minor experience, with any exceptions counting as "women's lives gain[ing] expression". Even use of the term "little dramas" sets my teeth on edge. Motherhood and marriage are little dramas? Only certain women can rescue these subjects? It's a literary trope that I simply loathe, the idea that women's writing only gains value through certain works and styles. (This is also the second half of what bothers me about Rabassa's quote, for the record, because I don't think it's a coincidence that he compares Lispector to Woolf, another rare woman writer who has graciously been allowed to belong to the men's club as a non-traditional woman writer and therefore one worth reading. A topic for a separate post...)

This sort of reframing of Lispector's writing and repositioning of her work as a woman writer isn't just frustrating as a feminist reader and champion of women in translation. It's also reflective of a pattern. Part of it is the trope I just mentioned, but the other has to do with Moser himself. Edwards' essay is precisely about this pattern of behavior, ranging from accusations of conceptually leaning heavily on Lispector's Portuguese-language biographer Nádia Gotlib's book (leading, as a commenter on the LARB blog notes, to her work effectively being "redundant" in translation due to Moser's heavy and barely-credited reliance on her work, and thus unmarketable) to his public negative review of Kate Brigg's book This Little Art which includes oddly gendered barbs against Briggs to his recently published biography of Susan Sontag.

(Finally, 1000 words in, she gets to the point!)

I haven't read Moser's work on Sontag. To be perfectly honest, I've never even read Sontag herself; she has always struck me as another of those writers (like Lispector, like Woolf) who are othered in the way they are spoken of in literary circles, particularly by the men who adore them. It is undoubtedly unfair of me to doubt these women writers on the basis of their fans (and indeed, see my new appreciation for Lispector on the basis of her short stories!), but there it is. And so I am forced - again - to rely on other people's perspectives of Moser's biography. Edwards' mentions Moser's approach to Sontag several times in her piece, noting that there is a pattern to Moser's rewriting of Sontag's history and interpretation of her work that seems to leap beyond the expected (referring to his additions to Lispector's biography). But hers is not the only essay to take a less-than-glowing approach to Moser's perspective.

Alongside many positive reviews, a few took issue with some of Moser's editorial interjections. In The Atlantic, Merve Emre writes "Moser packs in an extraordinary amount of detail. Yet the book feels strangely vacuous, or at least no more psychologically revealing than either Sontag’s diaries or the earlier unauthorized biography by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock. Aptly enough, the problem is one of interpretation." Johanna Hedva writes in The White Review: "None of the sentences in SONTAG sing, which makes for a wobbly read. From time to time we get some creative vocabulary – ‘it can only be called memoir in the baggiest sense of the word’ – and Moser is at his best when throwing shade. [...] I started to make notes in the margins whenever Moser’s authorial voice gracelessly intruded on the subject, but again, without an accounting of his own position. I noted, ‘BM being a touch nationalistic,’ ‘BM trying to explain racism lol.’ There are also sweeping generalisations that feel thin and unsatisfying." These two reviews left me wondering how much the praise of a certain biography is really about the biography itself, or the subject. Moser was selected to write Sontag's authorized biography... could another writer have done similar work? There is no doubt that Moser dedicated a lot of time and effort into writing this biography, nor do I doubt that it is meticulously and richly researched. By many accounts, it makes for a remarkably interesting reading experience. But I wonder...

This all became relevant the other day, when Moser's Sontag biography won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for a biographical work. Edwards' essay began to make the rounds again and many translators shared those critical reviews, often expressing their disgust and disappointment in Moser's win. Some - overwhelmingly women - went on to emphasize their own interactions with Moser. Susan Bernofsky tweeted angrily, noting Moser's history of "Bullying Women (for example, me)", with author and translator Idra Novey (another Lispector translator under Moser's editorial influence) tweeting "Can a misogynist who cultivates influential female friends and only undermines women who have no clout go on to win the Pulitzer in the 21st century? Yes, he can."

And so I find myself in a similar position as in October, when I wrote about the Nobel mess in awarding the literary world's biggest and highest-profile prize to Peter Handke, a man who has written in support of ethnic cleansers and troubling nationalism. At the time, I noted that: "there's a huge difference between separating art from artist in the sense of "okay let's publish a controversial artist for his art while acknowledging and interrogating his problems" and the question of "should we give the dude lots and lots of money, attention, fame, and a platform from which to promote hateful ideas"?" While Moser is accused of very different types of damage, the larger question remains: Does good writing by a damaging person deserve to be rewarded? What does it say about both our literary culture and our willingness to support the victims of this damage?

Moser's win is mostly troubling not for literary merit, but for personal. The literary community has spent years grappling with cases of lit-world "misconduct", to the point where many complain that authors (or critics or whatever) are "cancelled" for unjust reasons. Certainly I have felt that some cases of widespread dismissals and anger have stemmed from stiff reading of complex situations. And as with many other similar movements, sometimes it's hard to pinpoint where the line is drawn. Other times it's very easy. Moser's case strikes me as having been pushed into the murkier realm. Edwards' essay is being shared as a definitive piece, but what strikes me is less her single account as the combination of so many similar experiences. What strikes me is that several of Moser's collaborators on the Lispector project have come out against him (in some form or other). What strikes me - as ever - is the pattern.

Now let's look at the other pattern. By the other pattern, a man is rewarded time and again, in a situation where it is unclear why it must be him. Sontag's biographer would likely always have written an interesting book, because people are interested in Sontag herself. Moser was apparently approached to write the biography (that is, he was offered this reward on a platter), perhaps on the basis of the buzz surrounded his Lispector biography (which we now know is somewhat suspect). Moser is now rewarded again for the outcome of this work, but to suggest that it something unique to him when presumably any writer with access to Sontag's private writing cache could have done the same is... angering? Bewildering? Ultimately, it is reflective of another pattern that exists all too much in the literary world - insularity. That too is a topic for another post, but here we have such a clear example of someone being rewarded for something that... he was explicitly given. Of course his will be the definitive Sontag biography, if he's the only allowed access. It was never actually about his writing!

I'm left feeling frustrated and disappointed. I don't know Moser; it feels odd to write a whole post basically angry at the reward he has been given, but I am also witnessing many translators and writers I do know (at least through the internet...) practically bursting with rage. The publicly available information seems to paint its own portrait. It is entirely possible that Moser never intended to hijack women's words and works as his own, and this was all rooted in a sad misunderstanding, but there still remains the matter of Moser's existing words: the casual sexism in his Lispector introduction, the casual sexism in his review of This Little Art. As several people have already pointed out, rewarding a writer who has been known to bully those around him (particularly those in positions that rely on his power, and usually women) means giving him an even more established platform from which to work. Moser is now in an even greater position of power and influence; who else is likely to suffer from it?

I want to end on this one final observation. Edwards' LARB piece was published in August 2019. It was widely shared within the translated literature community in particular, yet I expect reasonably widely read elsewhere. It was thoroughly discussed. It also, seemingly, left no impact. It is now May 2020 and Moser's Wikipedia page shows no hint of controversy (nor, it seems, did anyone ever try to edit it accordingly), somewhat reminiscent of the erasure of Handke's literary controversy in the immediate aftermath of his Nobel win (I should note that a controversy section has returned to his Wikipedia page). Well-known women - who I will leave unnamed - have not been so lucky, instead having a controversy section emphasizing their faults (justified or not). Despite everything, Moser's public image remains untarnished, his reputation seemingly unblemished. Where do we go from here?