This essay is the third in a series of four short essays that I wrote for the National Post’s Afterword section.
I grew up reading the Hardy Boys series. This is where my gendered education began. Did you know that to “ejaculate” means to speak earnestly? “‘He must have been driving forty miles an hour!’ Frank ejaculated.” I might be misquoting.
Too early, I graduated from the Hardy Boys to James Bond, from whom I learned that a woman who has been drinking Dom Pérignon is a classier sexual conquest than a woman who has just brushed her teeth.
My most recent novel, Mr. Jones, was inspired in part by my childhood love of 1950s and 1960s fiction of Ian Fleming, and the steamy novels of John O’Hara and Robert Ruark. Surely this has happened to many others: sex education — and sexism — is acquired through novels, yes? Did this fade out in the ’80s?
I was very young when I read Robert Ruark’s novel called The Honey Badger (McGraw-Hill 1965). Here’s the copy on the dust jacket:
“[The Honey Badger’s] title is taken from [the male protagonist] Alec Barr’s own searing comment:
‘There’s a bloody brave little animal called the honey badger in Africa. It may be the meanest animal in the world. It kills for malice and for sport, and it does not go for the jugular — it goes straight for the groin. It has a hell of a lot in common with the modern American woman.’
The Honey Badger is an honest and full-bodied novel — a story whose truth no man can ignore and few women will dare acknowledge.”
Brrrrr. Bracingly masculine. Ruark, perhaps not coincidentally, drank himself to death that same year.
The Honey Badger was normal pop-literary discourse in those days, strange to say. Women were dames, untrustworthy, rotten to the heart. Women understood the world with sexual radar, making tiny beeping noises in the dark.
With all this Ruark’ian propaganda, how does a woman begin to write female characters? I don’t like “gumption” as a sole motivator. Who wants Pippi Longstocking? Even the contemporary hip versions of Pippi can make your teeth hurt. Ideology (including feminist) sucks the life out of literature. Fiction needs to be unstable, as vivid and precarious as the shadows of falling leaves thrown across the floor.
I hesitated to write a novel till I was in my thirties because I didn’t realize that often a page-turner is one long chase scene. This isn’t only a masculine imperative. Mary Shelley’s brilliant Frankenstein (written when she was 19 years old) is in large part a chase scene (as well as an allegory of the Enlightenment and many other things).
I still like Ian Fleming. Ruark? Not so much. Fleming wasn’t blind to his own sexism; he celebrated and parodied it. But there’s something downright psychotic in Ruark’s work. I leave you with this bit of him to stew in.
“‘Did you really shoot all these animals yourself?’ Penny’s voice was a little awed. ‘Like all those great big black ugly things on the other wall? Weren’t you scared to death?’”
Well, yes. I guess he was really was.