On September 27th, Christine Blasey Ford, the first of Brett Kavanaugh’s accusers, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. She recounted how, at a gathering on a summer night, in the early nineteen-eighties, Kavanaugh cornered her in a room, tried to undress her, and clamped his hand over her mouth to muffle her screams. Woven into her pliant self-presentation were steel threads: the authority of her scientific training, as well as a legitimacy that seemed to well up from a deeper place. (Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter.) In giving testimony, Ford was practicing a form of authorship—a fragile one. As Rebecca Solnit notes, there exists “a long brutal tradition of asserting that men are credible but women are incredible, men are objective, women are subjective”—“so subjective,” Solnit adds, that “we must find them crazy, delusional—or maybe drunk at the time and prone to mistaken identity.”
In the “he said, she said” of sexual violence, male facts and female facts are not created equal. Too many Americans prove willing to credit bizarre flights of fantasy from one side (doppelgängers; the phrase “Renate Alumnius” as a tender gesture of friendship), even as they scoff at the other side’s convincing recollections. When it was Kavanaugh’s turn to testify, he demanded that the woman’s statements bend around the man’s: Ford “may have been assaulted by someone, in some place, at some time,” he insisted, but not by him. The suggestion here is that men dictate reality and that women take the dictation, occasionally making mistakes for which they should be magnanimously forgiven. (“Let’s just be nice to her,” the Judiciary Committee chairman, Chuck Grassley, urged, about Ford.) If the woman persists in her error, that is when the mask of beneficence falls, revealing the red-faced and indignant bully.
Male rage and female pain have long been foundational literary topics. In books, as in life, narratives of male anger—from the Iliad to a speech by Donald Trump—command a reverent attention. (This interest in men’s interior lives, and in their ires, may have sociological roots: in her book “Toward a New Psychology of Women,” Jean Baker Miller suggests that all members of society stand to gain from theorizing about the psyches of the powerful.) Meanwhile, tales of female suffering, though profuse, are often dismissed as trivial or self-indulgent. Victims fare best when they do not yell, when they dwell not on injustice but on their sadness and on the intimate “impact” the violence against them has had. This vision of authorship, which privileges the subjective and the tragic—and which also underpins the mostly female genre of the harrowing first-person essay—reflects an understanding that women cannot be trusted to be impartial or truthful.
Yet if women lack the intellectual authority to interpret reality, they also lack the creative authority to invent it. Female writers can only write about themselves, it seems: even when they appear to be hatching fantasies, they are actually producing roman à clef. After Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person” was published, in The New Yorker, and became a viral sensation, some readers reacted as though the author had crafted an autobiographical piece about a tricky sexual encounter rather than a work of fiction exploring the occluded intricacy of other minds. “Stop Reading My Fiction as the Story of My Life,” begs an editorial by the novelist Jami Attenberg, from 2017, pointing out that one’s imagination “is a beautiful place to hide.” When female novelists write about female characters, or domesticity, or children, they face subtle charges of self-absorption—their perspectives classified as all-too-knowable and thus not worth knowing. (Meanwhile: Karl Ove Knausgaard.)
Still, it is women who do the lion’s share of the book reading, editing, agenting, and buying; this fact may help determine the shape of today’s best-seller lists. The buzziest novels and collections of the past year have arrived from the likes of Tayari Jones, Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, Sally Rooney, Carmen Maria Machado, and Ottessa Moshfegh. And yet you need only refer back to the Harper’s and New York Review of Books essays to remember that the most conservative viewpoint is still the one with the most institutional backing (at least until an old-timer perpetrates something so egregious that continued polite forbearance from the savvier advertising class becomes impossible).
Well-established steps test for symmetry about an axis: replace x or y with -x or -y and then simplify the equation. How do we balance the tonic and witty warmth of a Philip Roth novel against its contempt for mah-jongg-playing heifers? How do we think about the fact that so many boldface names in publishing and literature are female, that feminist reworkings of ancient myths constitute an industry trend, that spiky, honest meditations on motherhood make for another trend—and, still, we live in a world that hates women? #MeToo pulled off its most flamboyant literary crossover to date when Stormy Daniels published her memoir, “Full Disclosure,” earlier this month. It is hard to imagine someone with less traditional authority than a female sex worker; the thought that Daniels’s “lone” voice might “bring down the Goliath of structural sexism that is the Trump administration,” as Sady Doyle writes, trails a kind of Euclidean poetry through the brain. Maybe Daniels, an authentic red-state striver, is the x to the President’s -x; but the equations keep morphing, the coefficients melting. I prefer to think of her as a harbinger of the breakdown of patriarchal math. Powerful men decided that her story was worth exactly a hundred and thirty thousand dollars. She had other ideas.