You cannot write clearly without generalisations. Thus, after bowing my head in due awe and deference to the work of many talented colleagues, I still feel able to say that right-wing political journalism is clear and popular while too much of what passes for left-wing writing is obsessive, joyless and as comprehensible to today’s general readers as church Latin was to medieval peasants.
The power of right-wing writing is reflected in the extraordinary gains for nationalist parties across Europe. With the partial exception of Greece, a crisis in capitalism, brought about by the most overpaid and over-regarded men on the planet, has not produced a left-wing populist backlash, but its exact opposite. Whether in the end the Right will benefit is open to doubt: nothing has damaged the conservative cause in the minds of intelligent people as much as its raucous denial of man-made climate change, for instance, and the Right will find it takes immigrants generations to reconcile themselves to the parties which abused them.
But maybe I am just saying that to keep my spirits up. For now, right-wing populism is in the ascendant while too many on the Left struggle to throw off the stifling thought and style of postmodern academia. The furore about Gone Girl makes my point. The thriller (and if you have not seen the film or read the book you should stop reading now) was variously condemned in the liberal press for “recycling the most egregious myths about gender-based violence”, and portraying women as “little sexual monsters” with the power “to sexually, emotionally manipulate men”. It was “disgusting” and “unequivocally misogynistic”.
The procedure used on Gone Girl is familiar. The academic or critic inspects popular culture. She (in this instance) knows that unquestioned assumptions and prejudices infest the work. The author may not have known of their existence. The clueless viewer may not be able to see them, but she can unmask and denounce with fervent righteousness.
Gone Girl, the critics held, is a deserving target because its villain is the monstrous Amy Dunne. As the story unfolds, you learn that she has spent months planting clues which will mean that when she disappears the police will conclude that her unfaithful, useless husband murdered her. Not only does she try to frame her husband, she falsely accuses two other men of rape. She lets the first off after weeks of torment. She murders the second, and uses the fake rape claim to plead justifiable homicide. As it is hard to secure rape convictions, and defence lawyers seek to discredit rapists’ victims, the feminist case for the prosecution can sound ferocious. Applaud Gone Girl and you are applauding rapists; making it easier for them to get away with their crimes, and harder for women to convince juries that they aren’t scheming bitches in the Amy Dunne mould.
This trick, pulled in Gone Girl, is pulled so often you need to close your ears to the din of accusation and indignation to see the sleight of hand. Just because literary juries never award prizes to crime and thriller writers does not necessarily mean that their authors are fools or bigots who reinforce stereotypes until the wised-up critic reveals their true, bestial purpose.
The author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn (a woman, since you ask) has sold millions of copies because she is an accomplished and intelligent writer. The novel alternates between two unreliable narrators: the husband and wife, whose lies and confessions Flynn handles with great technical skill. Without shoving images of poverty in the readers’ faces, she also describes post-recession America with its abandoned shopping malls, homeless beggars and downwardly mobile couples like the Dunnes. She can write lines that stay with you. When Nick Dunne looks back to how he and Amy thought they had secured a glamorous future in the New York magazine business until the internet destroyed its finances, he thinks:
Writers (my kind of writers: aspiring novelists, ruminative thinkers, people whose brains don’t work quickly enough to blog or link or tweet, basically old, stubborn blowhards) were through. We were like women’s hat makers or buggy-whip manufacturers.
Which isn’t bad at all. Above all, Flynn creates a convincing picture of an awful marriage. Nick drags Amy back to his dowdy hometown in the Midwest. She grows to hate him as he cheats on her, and she realises how shrivelled and hopeless her life has become. In other words, Flynn makes her a credible character, not just a she-monster.
If most thrillers portrayed women as conniving murderers, the critics would still have half a case. Most thrillers do nothing of sort. Men are nearly always the villains. By denouncing Gone Girl as an aid to rapists, Flynn’s critics are not making a stand against misogyny but arguing for a Victorian morality in which the gentle sex can only be victims. This is hardly feminism.
They have an audience, no doubt about it, among those who are primed to search for offence and scream when they find it. If they look hard enough, they can find it everywhere. November, to take a topical instance, is also “Movember” when men persuade their friends to sponsor them to grow a moustache to raise funds to improve men’s health. The men have a laugh. The organisers collect impressive sums: £346 million, to date, for programmes in 21 countries tackling prostate and testicular cancer. I could not see how anyone might object until the left-wing New Statesman denounced it. British colonialists favoured moustaches, it said, so Movember had “imperial connotations”. Meanwhile Kurds, Indians and Mexicans often wore moustaches all year round, so could not grow them afresh. Movember, therefore “reinforces the ‘othering’ of ‘foreigners’ by the generally clean-shaven, white majority”, as well as marginalising “groups of men who may struggle to grow facial hair, such as trans-men”.
Assuming readers understood the clunking, jargon-filled prose, what would they do? They might agree that raising money for charity was imperialist, racist and transphobic, just as they might say Gone Girl helped rapists. I suspect most would want nothing more to do with a leftish milieu where the simple act of raising money for a good cause, like the simple pleasure of watching an intelligent thriller, led to frenzied denunciations.
As they left it behind, they would also be just a little more receptive the next time Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen told them that the politically correct wanted to ban everything, and silence everyone, and the only way to find freedom was to take a sharp turn to the Right.