Masculinity, Reading, and Twilight

photo by Chase Dimock

Masculinity, Reading, and Twilight

by

Dennis Wilson Wise

The long national nightmare is finally over—or, if “nightmare” is too strong a word, then at least the really bad national daydream.  The final Twilight movie has been released.  Audiences horrified at sparkling vampires and angst-ridden teen melodramas can now safely consign both books and movies to the oblivion they deserve.  Already the bookshelves at Wal-Mart have removed their depressing shelves filled with teen vampire romances.  Still, with the nostalgia industry being what it is, perhaps the memory of these trying times will never entirely go away. Certain consequences will endure—sometimes even personal consequences.

Some time ago my younger brother Nick approached me with intriguing news.  He had, apparently, read a book.  “Not just a book, either,” he said to me, “but an entire series!” Suitably impressed, I naively asked which series. As a doctoral student in English literature, you see, I had several times over the years suggested books that he might like, but I gave Nick up for lost after he ignored even Harry Potter.  So I was curious to see what great piece of literature had finally broken through to him—what stunning plot, which colorful character had finally reached through to someone bibliophobic since being forced to symbolism-hunt The Scarlet Letter in high school?

My brother beamed at me.  “Twilight by Stephanie Meyers,” he said.

Not literally the entire series, he hastened to assure me before I could disown him.  He’d only read the final three books of the tetralogy.  The first Twilight movie had utterly absorbed him, for whatever reason.  He could not wait until the release of the second movie, so he decided to turn to the books.  (No need to read the first book, he patiently explained, seeing as how he’d just seen the movie.)  Habitual book readers will understand what my brother felt, though—that keyed up feeling of gotta find out what happens next.

Typically, we call such books “page-turners,” and such experiences usually drive our love of reading.  Movies much more rarely facilitate that what-happens-next? experience, however.  First, movies almost never come out in a series.  (Sequels do not count.)  Second, and more importantly, movies tend to rigidly control the viewing experience.  Books are page-turners because readers know that faster reading will get them to the end quicker.  Films offer no such incentive; they are inflexible in their refusal to give up control to the reader.  Thus we might say that books are a liberal democracy while movies are a totalitarian regime.  So I could scarcely believe that my brother received a book-reading experience from a (mediocre) film.

My shock worked on a number of other levels as well, which leads to why I think this incident so revealing about contemporary notions of American masculinity. Cutting down to the heart of the issue, Twilight is a romance novel.  You know, the genre of heaving bosoms, restless passions, excessive adverbs, etc.  Judging by the covers of the newest books, the genre plays a little more subdued now than in its Fabio days, but the basic formula of a woman finding fulfillment through a relationship with a man remains the same.  More importantly, romance is a female oriented genre.  The first mass market publishers began distributing romance novels in supermarkets and drugstores precisely because it was easier to reach the “bored housewife” demographic that way, and feminism has done little to change the basic selling patterns.  The success of 50 Shades of Grey—originally fan fiction for Twilight—in fact pays tribute to the generic roots of its parent.  The Stephanie Meyers novels had created a teenage market for romance, and now that audience—older and more mature—has contributed to the success of the Twilight imitators.

And Twilight’s romantic roots are what make my brother’s literary revelation so startling.  Nick is a guy.  Not only that, but he’s a guy’s guy.  While the Romance Writers of America (RWA) reports that more men are reading romance fiction than ever before (about 9% of the total romance audience in 2012), the genre nonetheless remains strongly gender specific.  Does Nick feel embarrassed about liking a convoluted, cardboard, conventional teen romance?  Apparently not in the least.  When I tried to explain why Twilight was so bad, Nick cut me off and excitedly began a plot synopsis.  This coming from someone who in his younger days was the quintessential clubber and male socialite!  Although he never drinks, he dances well and dresses even better.  Like other suburban white boys, he loves hip hop.  Girls often find him irresistible.  Even now that he has turned 30, he is most comfortable with people in their 20s.  I have often been amazed at how positively people respond to him.  He rarely meets anyone he dislikes.  My little brother is a charming, gregarious crossbreed between Will Rogers and the Backstreet Boys.

Guys are not supposed to like romances.  The general “go to” stereotype of masculinity entails watching ESPN or sports, drinking beer (or drinking beer as a sport), tinkering with cars or motorcycles, or venturing forth into lush woodland areas to shoot at Bambi’s mother.  Any random survey of the History Channel’s programs will show anyone “typical” guy behavior.  (Good luck finding any actual history on there, though.)  Granted, general notions of masculinity have shifted over the last few decades.  Toby Maguire has replaced Sylvester Stallone as the conventional Hollywood action hero, and nowadays only video games and toys have those hyper-muscled sorts of heroes.  What does not go into this general image of male-ness, however, is novel reading.

Even stranger is that my brother—like myself—grew up in an area of the country where standardized notions of masculinity hold great sway.  Western Pennsylvania is a predominantly working class area on the fringes of the Rust Belt.  Sports and drinking are our largest community-building activities.  When Art Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns, moved the team to Baltimore in 1995, the event marked something like a regional tragedy.  Likewise with Lebron James—who had temporarily made Cleveland basketball a national force—deciding to “take his talents to South Beach.”  Our population, additionally, is rapidly aging.  Many of our young people leave to more economically flourishing areas as soon as they are adults.  Now that I no longer live in Pennsylvania, my facebook newsfeed is my primary way of keeping in touch with people from home.  Overwhelmingly, their posts are about the Browns or the Pittsburgh Steelers or some other sporting events.  To complete the standard stereotypes, western PA is also even one of the best places in the country to hunt deer.

Given such an area, it seems perfectly rational that my brother never became a novel reader (and perfectly odd that I did).  Once, a long time ago, I stumbled upon a marketing website that offered to “define” any area for prospective businessmen.  You simply type in the zip code and it provides the three most popular activities.  One of the things that Western PA excelled in, apparently, was “video games.”  Then out of curiosity I entered in “90210.”  Interestingly enough, Beverly Hills emphatically did not excel at video games.  This could have given us some regional pride, I suppose, as it is nice to  excel at something.  Still: video games, sports, drinking. These are the pensions of a rust-riddled region populated by blue-collar workers. The nearby city of Youngstown—a miniature Detroit, semi-abandoned, which was once known for its levels of mafia-related crime—has a small theater and a few other outlets for “high culture,” but generally such things are not typical for us.  The book culture does not flourish to any exceptional degree.  There are small pockets, of course, but never to the extent of any of the college towns I have lived in.

As such, although I complained about my brother reading Twilight of all things, I was nonetheless secretly happy that he had read anything at all.  Any books, even bad books, are good for people. But I also felt real surprise at how much he actually enjoyed the series. When I asked my brother for an explanation, his answer was both obvious and enlightening. “Yeah, Dennis, but the books had good plots. They kept me interested. I wanted to find out what happened next.”  And that was all he felt needed to be said.

Those are important sentiments, I think, and they show how our stereotypes of “masculinity” often fail to live up to the richer and more complex reality of maleness. Yes, my brother likes sports and clubs and poker.  And yes, apparently, he also somehow likes a cheesy teenage romance novel.  Growing up, both of us knew our fair share of working-class sports junkies, and today they’ve become adults with families and political passions.  (Indeed, most of the conservatives I know today were high school classmates.)

But the stereotypes—as stereotypes always do—fall short, as the case with my brother shows. It is altogether too easy, sometimes, to attribute a fondness for ESPN and deer-hunting with a certain type of masculinity, ignoring how our categories are never really set in stone. Room exists for Twilight. Since that experience, my brother has ventured out into other books, and he recently bought a Kindle. Does he feel himself any less of a guy?  I have never bothered to ask him because I knew he would find the question ridiculous.  He likes what he likes, tending to follow his instincts in such matters.  This is a healthy attitude, I feel.  And, personally, seeing his example helps me avoid the various prejudices that evolve when all one’s friends are graduate students or university affiliated.  And his attitude helps me remember that even a book-lover like myself, who no longer remains passionate about sports, can still feel a special knife-twist when the Baltimore Ravens win the latest Super Bowl, even eighteen years after Art Modell stole our football team.

***

Dennis Wilson Wise is a PhD student in English at Middle Tennessee State University.

Tolerating the Intolerable? (Or: Why We Should Not be Tolerant of Chick-fil-A)

 

Tolerating the Intolerable? (Or: Why We Should Not be Tolerant of Chick-fil-A)

by Lindsey Mason

In our cosmopolitan society, what does it mean to be tolerant?  Should we always be tolerant of others’ opinions?  Or are we sometimes required to be intolerant?  I believe not all tolerance is morally required.  I believe there are opinions of which we ought not be tolerant.  I believe there are opinions we ought to criticize, reject, and discourage.  Below I will argue for which kinds of opinions we ought to tolerate and which kinds we ought not to tolerate.  The conclusion of my argument is that we should not be tolerant of Chick-fil-A.

This essay on tolerance is spurred by recent remarks by Chick-fil-A’s Dan Cathy.  Recently in the news, Cathy said the following two things: (1) “We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit.”[1]  For many, this implied that Cathy was taking a stand against any non-traditional marriage, including gay marriage.  Cathy also expressed his belief on the matter in a radio show, saying, (2) “I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,'” Cathy said. “And I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.”[2]  This second quotation clarified the first, thus making it obvious that Cathy is against gay marriage.

Cathy’s comments have sparked interest from conservatives and liberals.  The predominant conservative line seems to be in agreement with Cathy for the “traditional” and “biblical” definition of marriage, and the common liberal line seems to oppose Cathy in favor of gay marriage.  Liberals are vowing to boycott the restaurant in protest, sometimes going too far as when mayors of Boston and Chicago said they would not allow Chick-fil-A business into their cities.  Conservatives are gathering support for Chick-fil-A, and they are even calling for a “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” on August 1st.

But the most troubling—and frankly confused—part of this whole debate is over the notion of “tolerance.”  Throughout the World Wide Web, I’ve read several authors accuse liberals of committing the very crime of which they’re accusing conservatives.  Liberals are accusing conservatives of being intolerant of homosexuality; conservatives respond by accusing liberals of being intolerant of their biblical-based definition of marriage.  For example, an article by Denny Burk is entitled, “Chick-fil-A and the Irony of the Tolerance Police” to suggest that liberals are supposed to be policing tolerance, but are here showing their very intolerant hand.  Ken Coleman (the host of the radio show on which Cathy talks of “God’s judgment”) points out a similar “irony” when he writes: “Increasingly, we see a well-oiled publicity machine that is redefining tolerance as, ‘either you agree with me or you need to button your lips.’ Those who throw the labels of intolerance and bigotry at those who share an opposing opinion are ironically modeling a glaring lack of tolerance.”[3]  So the objection to liberals in this debate seems to be that they’re being hypocrites.  They’re accusing Chick-fil-A of being intolerant, and yet showing their own intolerance—the very thing they’re against.

I believe that this diagnosis of the problem is incorrect.  There are certain differences of opinion we ought to be tolerant of, but that does not mean we ought to be tolerant of anything someone else believes, says, or does.  Consider two kinds of disagreements.  Suppose Sally believes in God and Joe does not believe in God.  Because of Sally’s beliefs, she acts in certain ways: she prays regularly, she attends church services, and she congregates with fellow believers, etc.  Because of Joe’s beliefs, he doesn’t engage in any of these activities.  Sally and Joe disagree about whether God exists, and their disagreement affects how they each live their own lives.  But notice: Sally’s belief that God exists doesn’t interfere with the way Joe wants to live his life.  Simply believing that God exists doesn’t harm Joe in any way; it doesn’t take away any of Joe’s freedoms, and it doesn’t make Joe’s life worse in any way.  Similarly, Joe’s belief that God doesn’t exist doesn’t interfere with Sally’s life.  In such a case, Joe ought to be tolerant of Sally’s different belief.  He also ought to continue to let her go to church, pray, etc., if that’s what she wants to do.  Similarly, Sally ought to tolerate Joe’s belief.  She ought to continue to let Joe live his life without praying or going to church.  Sally ought to be tolerant of Joe’s different belief.  The point of the example is this: in a situation such as the one encountered by Sally and Joe—where the disagreement over whether God exists does not harm anyone or take away anyone’s freedoms—everyone ought to be tolerant.

Now consider a different kind of case.  Suppose Jefferson believes that it’s morally permissible to own slaves.  Because of this belief, Jefferson in fact owns several slaves, and he treats them as if they are animals.  He buys them and sells them like cattle; he beats them; he impregnates their wives.  In general, his belief that slavery is morally permissible entails that he believes that a certain class of people are subhuman, deserving fewer rights and privileges.  Tubman, however, disagrees with Jefferson.  She believes owning slaves is morally impermissible—we shouldn’t do it.  So, Tubman does not engage in any of Jefferson’s activities of owning slaves, beating them, buying and selling them like cattle, or impregnating their wives.  Instead, she believes that all people deserve equal rights, and that no human being should be treated as subhuman.  Jefferson and Tubman disagree about the issue of slavery, and this disagreement affects how they live their lives.  But notice a difference here compared to Sally and Joe above: Jefferson’s belief does interfere with the way Tubman wants to live her life.  Jefferson believes he should be allowed to capture and enslave Tubman, thus taking away her freedoms.  He believes that Tubman is subhuman, deserving fewer rights than he enjoys.  Should Tubman be tolerant of Jefferson’s beliefs?  No, she should not.  She should fight against people who believe and act as Jefferson does.  She should be intolerant of anyone who believes that another human being could be his slave.  Tubman’s intolerance of the differing opinion is not only morally acceptable—it is morally required.  When someone has a certain belief, and that belief takes away the life, liberty, or property of another, then that belief ought not to be tolerated.  Jefferson’s belief takes away the liberty of others.  And so Jefferson’s belief ought not to be tolerated.  Sally’s belief from above does not take away the life, liberty, or property of anyone else—not even Joe—and so her belief ought to be tolerated.  That is, we ought to be tolerant of others’ beliefs so long as those beliefs do not take away the life, liberty, or property of others.

Now back to Chick-fil-A.  When Cathy expresses his opinion that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, is his belief more like Sally’s or Jefferson’s?  What I mean by that is, does Cathy’s belief attempt to take away anyone else’s liberty?

I think Cathy’s belief is more like Jefferson’s (while obviously to a lesser degree).  By saying that marriage is only between a man and a woman, one is taking away another person’s liberty.  One is denying a gay man the right and privilege to join in marriage with another man.  One is denying a lesbian woman the right and privilege to join in marriage with another woman.  One is denying a bisexual man the right and privilege to join in marriage with another man.  And so on for bisexual women and for people who are transgendered.  There is a whole population of people here who are denied something—marriage—so that Cathy and others in agreement with him can hold a belief.  Cathy’s belief is not the kind of belief that calls for tolerance.  We should not stand by, idly tolerant of others’ beliefs when those beliefs take away the liberty of someone else.

Notice, however, that when someone believes that gay marriage is morally permissible, that does not take away anyone else’s liberty.  I’m not saying that every minister/priest/preacher has to actually marry homosexual couples.  They can choose not to participate in the actual marrying.  I’m not saying that every man has to go out, divorce his wife, and marry another man now.  That would be absurd.  Allowing gay marriage is not to demand gay marriage for everyone.  It is time to acknowledge that allowing Ben and Shaun to get married does not take away anyone else’s life, liberty, or property.  In fact, it doesn’t affect anyone else’s life at all.  So, if tolerance is ever called for, it’s called for in the case of proponents of gay marriage, and not for those who argue against it.  We ought to be tolerant of people who believe gay marriage should be allowed because that belief does not take away anyone’s liberty.  We ought to be intolerant of people who believe gay marriage is wrong because that belief takes away someone’s freedom to marry whomever he or she loves.

My goal here is quite narrow.  It is to show that the liberal position of criticizing Cathy is not hypocritical.  Tolerance is called for only when the belief or action being tolerated is different from your own, yet it is not taking away anyone else’s life, liberty, or property.  The belief that gay marriage is wrong should not be tolerated since it takes away other people’s liberty.  The liberal can hold this position—the position of not tolerating beliefs that take away others’ liberty—while agreeing that many other instances of tolerance ought to be encouraged.  One need not be tolerant of unjustified intolerance.  Cathy is the one being intolerant in the morally objectionable way, not the liberal.

Landscape’s Influence: An Interview with Kathy Fagan

Landscape’s Influence: An Interview with Kathy Fagan

by Sean Karns

Kathy Fagan is the author of four books of poems: The Raft (Dutton, 1985), a National Poetry Series selection; Moving & St Rage (Univ. of North Texas Press, 1999), winner of the Vassar Miller Prize for Poetry; The Charm (Zoo Press, 2002), and Lip (Eastern Washington Univ. Press, 2009). She is a professor of English at Ohio State University, where she co-edits The Journal.

Sean Karns: How has moving to the Midwest changed your perspective? And how has it influenced your poetry?

Kathy Fagan: I lived many places growing up and going to school, so it wasn’t a shock to move to the Midwest. I grew used to reserving judgment, and just went where I had to go for my family or for my education and, later, for my own jobs. What was shocking were the circumstances under which I was suddenly, being fully employed, able to live when I moved to central Ohio. In a house, for example. A large 130-year-old former farmhouse, a house that was in many ways the house I wished I’d grown up in. And the house was in a small town north of Columbus, which was also, for me, a native New Yorker, enormously weird and appealing. I got to playhouse really, attending the neighborhood movie theater for a couple bucks a show, eating in the neighborhood burger and beer joint for cheap, going to the county fair, etc. I lived in that house for sixteen years, longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere. I wrote about it in the new book, Lip, in a poem called “Nostophobia.” I love that house as if it were a person, and when I left it I knew I could never go back. Maybe that’s one way that the Midwest has changed my perspective: the land is flat, you can see the horizon everywhere. I’ve become someone for whom a tree or a hill or a house can be seen as a singular significant entity. Anything of beauty can flare up and throttle you: a cardinal in snow, sycamore trees in sunlight, a redbud in bloom, a child in her father’s arms. They’re all set off in high relief in the Midwest. Likewise, I look to poems, and to my own poems in particular, for something decidedly unflat: music, energetic syntax, images that radiate outward, creating light and shadow and color; I try to shape lines that will make a composition vivid, to use language that allows for emotional complexity and permits aural/oral pleasures simultaneously. Maybe I’d require all that of poems if I lived in Hawaii or Paris instead of here, but I don’t think I’m overstating landscape’s influence on one’s work and life.

SK: Do you think that the Midwest has a distinct aesthetic?

KF: I don’t have any freakin’ idea. I’ve lived here for nearly twenty years and I’m still surprised every day by it. What I think is that, on the one hand, the Midwest is one of the least provincial places I’ve ever lived. I think it’s a good place to make art—or to be a reader or writer or stilt-dancer or whatever—because nobody cares, and if they do they don’t mention it. I’ve never met people who keep to themselves as much as Midwesterners do. There’s a national perception that the Midwest is a place where it’s still the 1950s, that people go to church on Sundays and vote Republican and drive American-made cars and have abysmal eating habits; there’s some truth to that. But I have also met the most progressive and eccentric and creative people in Ohio and the Midwest, people who lead interesting lives, people who work hard and live fruitfully.

All that said, I’m not sure there is, beyond the Protestant plainness and simplicity one sees in the buildings and homes of Midwestern cities and towns, an aesthetic. I think most Midwesterners would scoff at the notion of aesthetics. It used to pain me that Columbus, for instance, wasn’t more forward-thinking about saving its landmarks and historical sites. It worries me that we don’t have a lightrail, that we build shit-malls and shit-houses where there once were natural habitats for deer and owls. There’s plenty that’s butt-ugly around here, but I’ve seen butt-ugly everywhere. We live in a climate of disposability, in this country and others, and in a disposable society the word “aesthetic,” if it exists at all, is an extremely fluid word at best, corrupt at worst. The Midwest has a little bit of an inferiority complex, I think. I think it feels insecure. When it quits feeling second- or third-best, and I think it is, slowly, doing that, it will flourish as a green, intellectual, and artistic part of the country. For my part, I see incredibly diverse work being written across the Midwest, by natives and non-natives alike. It would feel wrong to try to group that work under the heading of a single controlling aesthetic or sensibility.

SK: How would you characterize your poetry?

KF: I don’t characterize my poetry. I don’t subscribe to schools or categories or movements. I love to read poems that wake me to something in myself. I hope I write that kind of poem for other readers.

SK: Do you find any pattern ideas recurring in your poetry?

KF: I see patterns of thought and image echoed and expanded on in the poems, if not actual ideas. And some poetic obsessions or fetishes recur, of course. In the new book, Lip, I extend my ongoing work with persona, which I’ve been interested in for over twenty-five years. Maybe it’s the frustrated novelist in me, maybe it’s the fact that a single point of view never satisfies me, maybe it’s a love of voice, of many voices, that continues to motivate me to find those poems to write. I think, looking over the past four books and now into the fifth, that persona and structure, the voice speaking the poem and the vessel in which the spoken word is delivered, are absolutely central to my project, so if that’s the kind of pattern you’re talking about, well then, it’s there in spades. Making a song of a poem is more important to me than making a story. I wish for the music and texture of the language to say as much as the sentences do. And I do so love sentences and all they’re capable of, but I love the line even more. Littler fetishes of mine include the alphabet, the dictionary, the Bible, the saints, field guides, graveyards, a handful of artists, and miniatures of all kinds, which explains my affinity for children and birds.

SK: How do you manage being the poetry editor of The Journal, teaching, and writing?

KF: In the past it seemed to me that teaching and editing and life in general always came before writing. In as much as humanly possible, that is no longer true for me. I try to put writing first now, and sometimes I succeed. I started teaching to pay the rent and quickly discovered that I became invested in my students, in their lives and their learning processes. As a student myself, I worked on literary magazines and realized that that, in addition to teaching, was the best way for me to interact with other poets. I’m not much of a social butterfly, so engagement with poets in the classroom and in magazine correspondence are the primary ways I meet poets and get to know their work. I’ve made more friends over the years through teaching and The Journal than I ever did in writing programs, at conferences, or at colonies. But that’s another subject altogether. My point is that the three activities, teaching, editing, and writing, have become very interconnected, especially in the past ten years or so. At worst, I can feel like a poetry machine, churning forward for no good reason; at best, like someone who’s holding a little lantern in the dark. But I can’t imagine not writing, teaching, and editing—I wouldn’t refuse some time off, but I think the balance is just about as right as I can get it at this moment.

______

Sean Karns’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in RATTLE, Pleiades, Los Angeles Review, Cold Mountain Review, Folio, Mayday Magazine, and elsewhere.  His chapbook, Witnessing the World (New American Press), will be released in late 2012.

[The above interview was originally published by Ninth Letter and is reprinted here with permission of the author.]