Sunday, July 26, 2015

On aging and the relative attractiveness of men and women

One does not read Michel Houellebecq for the progressiveness of his politics. As it happens, if one is me, one does not read Michel Houellebecq very often, for any reason at all. But the current issue of The Paris Review included an extract of Submission, and I read it, to see if I might be interested at all in reading the book. (Spoiler: I am not.)

The extract is of a subgenre that has been all too familiar, ever since Henry Miller: Heterosexual man writes from the point-of-view of his penis. Being possessed of a penis, I perhaps do not find this type of writing quite as tiresome as most non-penised readers might. But being bi- or pan-sexual (depending on the light of the moon and how much I am willing to sacrifice ready comprehensibility to straights for the sake of precision), I come at it slantways.

Consider, for example, this sentence: "In short, I benefited from that basic inequality between men, whose erotic potential diminishes very slowly as they age, and women, for whom the collapse comes with shocking brutality from year to year, or even from month to month." This is not an especially original observation. In fact, it is a cliché. I am sure I can find parallel sentences in the works of other straight male literary writers with an erotic edge, whether Kundera or Nabokov or the aforementioned Miller. Most clichés become clichés because they have an element of truth. This one, however, I am confident in saying, is an outright falsehood.

It is not just any kind of falsehood, but specifically, an ideological falsehood, an example of the type of self-interested lie that a man tells himself to justify an unjust state of affairs from which he personally benefits. That a man may find women far too young to be appropriate mates more attractive than women roughly his own age reveals little more than his emotional immaturity. That he may occasionally succeed in acting upon such desires is also unremarkable, particularly in literature, which gives ample room for wish-fulfillment. For this phenomenon to be inflated into a general law of the relative attractiveness of the sexes as they age is absurd, particularly as the straight man, in judging the attractiveness of men, has no sample, only a single data point, narcissistically measured: Himself.

On the contrary, I can affirm, as someone who has long been attracted to women and men in roughly equal measure, that on average, women age far better than men. Nor is it a matter of women, attempting to keep pace with patriarchal norms of beauty, working harder to maintain their attractiveness. Certainly this plays into it, but there are too many counterexamples, not the least of which is my own wife, who has never worn a bit of makeup and whose most rigorous workout regimen is some occasional yoga. It is men who are far more in need of regular intervention to avoid a catastrophic collapse in their desirability, even as, because of a relative lack of social pressure, they are far less likely to practice such interventions.

Of course there are men my age and older whom I find attractive. Without exception, however, they are not straight. It will be interesting to see, as the social experiment of extending legal marriage to same-sex couples takes root, whether gay men in state-sanctioned long-term relationships will allow themselves to "let themselves go" as their heterosexual counterparts long have. That does not appear to have happened yet, but it is too soon to tell.

That a judgment like Houellebecq's is allowed to stand, and persist, and replicate, nearly unchallenged, without impairing his critical reception as a putatively insightful author, shows only that the literary apparatus of publishing, translating, and reviewing remains dominated by people more or less like him, straight men of middle age or greater who affirm its truth not because it is true, but because they would very much like it to be so.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

I Lied: A Few More Words about the Hugos

I rarely watch movies. The last time [spouse] and I saw a film in the theater together was before she even got pregnant with our first child. That child is now seven-and-a-half years old. Rarely, also, do I feel moved to seek them out on DVD. I don't even have a Netflix subscription. The only reason we have cable is that, where we live, Time Warner has a monopoly on passable internet connections. When [spouse] lost her job, we cut back our cable subscription to the minimal 20 channels. One night recently, when an earache robbed me of my concentration, I could neither read nor piss about online, so I watched the local access channel's coverage of our most recent town council meeting. I was genuinely interested in it. More interested than I am in most Hollywood blockbusters.

So when the Hugo ballot for Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) was announced, the only nominees in which I had the slightest interest were Edge of Tomorrow and Interstellar. The interest was slight enough that I did not feel particularly moved to attempt to obtain either one. Nick Mamatas's nagging prompted me to get Edge of Tomorrow (it's based on a Japanese science fiction book, available in English translation from Haikasoru) via interlibrary loan, and I was pleased that I did. A Google search tells me that I am not the first person for whom the phrase "Groundhog Day meets Full Metal Jacket" came to mind. Since those are two of my favorite movies of all time, however, I don't mind. Watching Tom Cruise die in various humiliating ways is all it's cracked up to be.

My conceptual interest in Interstellar dissipated as soon as a library catalog reminded me that Matthew McConaughey stars in it. Not only can't he act, it is as if he is a negative quantity, an anti-actor, who manages to annihilate all trace of talent in those performing with him.

My Hugo ballot for Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form):

  1. Edge of Tomorrow

Among the other categories in which my interest barely rises above nil is "Best Graphic Story". So when [spouse] and [daughter] had Ms. Marvel Vol. 1 checked out of the library and were reading it, I did not even recognize it as a Hugo nominee, nor did I ask to look at it. After they had returned it, they noticed the Hugo ballot in a copy of the Sasquan Progress Report that I had left lying about and started lobbying me to vote for it. But I can't in good conscience vote for something I have not read and enjoyed myself, and I am not interested enough in graphics as a genre to ask them to check it out from the library again. If it's a close vote and Ms. Marvel loses, feel free to blame me.

As more people post their ballots and/or their critical response to the items on the ballot, I have been surprised at how critical judgment on Kary English's "Totaled" has lined up. People who fault contemporary SF for leaving too little room for ambiguity have criticized it for unclear, unreliable narration in the early sections. (To which I respond: As if a recently revived brain-in-a-jar would be a reliable narrator.) People who have a habit of calling for "good stories" in the whiz-bang mode of military SF have praised the story for its emotional trajectory. It has scrambled the factional lines, and that, I think, suggests a few points in its favor. There is room for dispute over it, and is worth being revisited and debated on aesthetic grounds.

What I think is indisputable, unfortunately, is how thoroughly English herself stumbled over the politics of this year's hyper-politicized Hugo. She went months after the announcement of the ballots before disavowing both the Sad and Rabid Puppies slates on which she had been placed: Long enough that most of the anti-canine wings of the Hugo electorate had already dismissed her as a fellow traveler, but not long enough to avoid the wrath of the Rabid Majordomo himself. I take this as an object lesson in how the center-right, quasi-depoliticized "common sense" that passes as "moderation" in the U.S. context can succeed, in a global context, only in pissing people off, whether in small matters (e.g. the Hugos) or in big ones (e.g. Guantánamo, drone bombings).