Thoughts about Blue Angel, Francine Prose

(I haven’t called this a review because it isn’t one. I have some thoughts, but mostly I want to know what y’all think about some stuff.)

Says a Boston Review review of Blue Angel: “If Francine Prose‚Äôs latest [it was her latest then but is not her latest now] novel, Blue Angel, were written by a man, its author would surely be called a sexist.”

Boy it sure would. I only finished it because I wanted to talk to y’all about stereotypes and satire. Francine Prose, set off I guess by a friend of hers getting suspended without pay for two years because he was talking about students’ breasts, has written a book about a creative writing professor who lives in terror that he will accidentally sexually harass a student and get fired forever. Cf. this. Then he has sex with a student and gets fired. But you can still sympathize with him because the student is a calculating vixen who’s just using him to gain access to his publisher and have her own novel published.

Our hero Swenson has written two novels in his career, the second of which was a wild success. But that was many years ago, and now he is floundering, trying to finish a third novel (alas! to no avail!) whilst he teaches a creative writing class at a small liberal arts college in Vermont. The college is very concerned about sexual harassment, and Swenson — whose students perpetually turn in stories about giving blow jobs and sex with chickens and incest — is concerned about it too. When he meets a young, gifted writer called Angela who I swear to God is writing a novel about having sex with her teacher, he simply cannot resist the sexytimes temptation anymore. Matters unfold from there.

Because people I like are Francine Prose fans, I am giving her the following benefit of the doubt: I was not paying attention to the mid-1990s zeitgeist she is satirizing. At that period in my life I was big into this game I used to play with Social Sister and her best friend where I was the mother bird and they were the baby birds and I would hatch them and then teach them the ropes of being a bird, such as how to escape from cats (the cats were Legal Sister, if she could be convinced to play with us) and how to take shelter during storms. It is perfectly possible that everybody was having kittens about sexual harassment in 1995, and all the college girls were possessed of a Crucible-esque (GOD that was an annoying article) fervor for destroying the lives of innocent men; and I just didn’t know about it because I was playing this awesome bird game. And maybe if I had been politically and socially aware at the time I’d have been giggling helplessly at stuff like, for instance, this:

Just as Swenson suspected from the inverted bowl of gray hair and the tense, aggrieved shoulders, it’s Lauren Healy, the English Department’s expert in the feminist misreading of literature and acting head of the Faculty-Student Women’s Alliance. Swenson and Lauren always fake a chilly collegiality, but for reasons he can’t fathom — a testosterone allergy, he guesses — Lauren wants him dead.

And this:

Deconstructionist Jamie shoots daggers at harmless, ga-ga Ruth, while Lauren Healy glares at Jamie, protecting the older woman from his patronizing, oppressive maleness.

Maybe in another time I would have found it hilarious.

I sort of doubt it, though, and here’s why. The plot “Vixen uses her womanly wiles to bring about a good man’s downfall” is a plot that can happen. But if you are going to use that trope as the basis of your book, it behooves you to be exceptionally careful in how you play it out. For one thing it’s been done a trillion times so it does run the risk of coming off (as it does in Blue Angel) predictable. In more important concerns, it is a trope that has been trotted out as an excuse to oppress women since before the days of Moses, and the world has not yet scooted itself out from under the burden of that history. The story of men being victimized by lady sex fiends is not the actual story of the world, but it’s a story that has had and continues to have remarkable staying power. It has been told so often and to the detriment of so many people that if you’re going to tell it again, I think you have to have something new and interesting to say about it. I mean that you have some responsibility — in a way that you don’t necessarily have with other types of stories — to explain why you are retreading this ground.

I do not think — Francine Prose fans, if you are going to fuss at me, don’t let it be for this! I have already disclaimed it! — that Francine Prose is a sexist bastard. She has, however, written a slightly sexist bastard book. It satirizes a historically disenfranchised group (young women) by employing one of the stereotypes that has historically disenfranchised them. And not even really subverting it, but playing it straight all the way through. That is rather ick.

Anyway. I did not wade through this entire irritating book just to hear myself talk. I want to know what y’all think about this. What elements have to be present in a book or a book’s author for it to be okay that the book employs historically oppressive stereotypes to make the plot go? Should an author have to worry about the history of a trope s/he is using in his/her own personal book?

And another question that came to mind while I was reading this book, and to which I have no good answer: How do you feel about satirizing historically disenfranchised groups? I don’t feel great about it, and I was definitely having a reaction while reading Blue Angel of like, Really, Francine Prose? You’re going to satirize college girls for complaining about sexual harassment? There’s nobody else you could satirize who deserves it more? I was a bit surprised at myself for reacting that way, so tell me what y’all think. Is it cool to satirize anyone, any time? Or is satire only good when directed at the powerful? If you think that satirizing a relatively unpowerful group is less like satire and more like kicking someone when they’re down, what differentiates the former from the latter?