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#metoo, New Yorker #metoo

Letter to the Editor: When New Yorker Fiction Speaks #MeToo

Emailed Jun 11, 2019, 3:59 PM – No response


In the June 3rd issue of The Critics: On Television section of The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum observes the #MeToo movement in her piece "In The Current Climate." She states that "television has always been a delivery system for morality…creators are visibly adjusting to, and at times struggling with, the changing landscape." I agree. And for me, the New Yorker isn't that far behind the influence of TV. 


Prior to Nussbaum's article, Kristen Roupeanian’s “Cat Person,” cracked open a window of truth with her fictionalized account so emotionally #MeToo resonant that it hit us all like hardcore journalism. Since then, I’ve been casually annotating the recent curations of the Fiction section of New Yorker and I can’t help but wonder: is the recent collective of stories meant to be a murmur in the Movement or a shout? It leans towards the mega phone, but who's voice is it? It's hard to hear.


Yes, there's been a surge of female authors in the Fiction section, as well as more narratives exposing our modern oppressions, but I can’t tell if the continuing stories are meant to be an escalation towards a climactic stance of some kind or a buffet of observations. And I find that ironic when the rest of the magazine appears to have a distinct opinion. (Perhaps the point of the fiction published is evoking a charge, infecting my own fingertips, and others, to type in the enormous gaps themselves?)


In “Ross Perot and China” by Ben Lerner, we hear a young man’s retelling of a story told by his girlfriend about her mansplaining step-father who downloads his stories to the dinner table every night no matter who or what is there, or not. We see the faintest glimpse, of the truest victim revealed—the mother, caught sanitizing herself in the kitchen with a stoic posture and a full glass of wine. It’s powerful in its subtlety, especially in contrast to her stereotypic noisy husband, but why? We’ve observed millions of miserable married women drink and stare sullenly into their kitchen sinks in all the mediums. What traumas happened to this mother that led her to stare into her sink and why is the telling of her stunting trickling down to the afterthoughts of an insecure teenage boy? We already know about him. Tell us what happened to her.


“Cut” by Catherine Lacey uses a physical ailment as metaphor for the division of a middle-aged modern American female, but still, it’s hard to know what exactly has caused the pain and why the protagonist, or the reader, should care. It’s such an honest ailment from which so many of us suffer, but so many of us are no longer concerned about the fear of splitting apart in solitude, we've been accepting this since childbirth—we’re ready to hear the ways women have been stitching themselves back together. 


“Medusa” by Pat Barker drew a clear and clever line from the point of trauma (a rape) to the point of division (a bad date.) Being a victim of sexual assault myself, I would never deny that those stories need repeating, however, the systems of moral delivery have been shouting this particular hand-slap for centuries. Raping is bad, didn't you see the sign? We’re familiar with what happens when a man steals a woman’s light through her vagina. What does it look like when they steal it from her mind? Her spiritual connection? Her parenting, career, her art. Her writing.


In “Lulu” by Te-Ping Chen, the male protagonist compares his apathetic integrity to that of his sister who is condemned for her active one. His guilt, and ours, is palpable, but what good is the inflammation of more apathy? Young Jean Lee once shared in an interview in Dramatist, that she wrote Straight White Men because she knew nothing about them. Her approach and her answer gave feminists a creative and powerful voice (to those who saw the limited run.) I beg you publishers to the masses, please, please let us now hear from the protagonists less heard. Somebody cue the spotlight on the proverbial meek, especially if we’re going to be left in charge.


Publishing creative explorations about the ripples of #MeToo and its effects has its uses, of course. Especially through stories like what Nussbaum describes as "not so much about individuals as they are about the systems around them, and the troubling sensation of recognizing a bad pattern by seeing that you are a part of it." But why are most of the stories lingering around the creative tellings of the aftershocks of the traumas and not the traumas themselves? Why publish stories from the mirror and not from Snow White?


The trend of male apathy continues in the New Yorker fiction section with stories highlighting more rape confessions in “The Confession” by Leila Slimani and “The Starlet Apartments” by Jonathan Lethem—we know horrific sexual violations are happening every minute of every day—but why are the abusers and their guilt getting so much air-time here? Where are the victims’ voices? How are we healing by wallowing in the creatively written guilt of it all? Emma Cline comes right out and asks “What Can You Do With a General,” but the trajectory of New Yorker’s recent fiction collection doesn’t seem to have an experiment, much less a hypothesis of a #MeToo notion after that. 


More than ever, creative writing is the voice of truth, and I believe platforms like New Yorker, with a thoughtful strategic plan aimed at their demographic of readership, is capable of a significant hand in empowering change in the name of #MeToo—that is, if they want it. The current trends of the Fiction section borders on the exploitation of #MeToo experiences—catalysts launching regretful lessons of male protagonists and their getting contingently #woke.


It's time to publish more from the front lines of female traumas themselves or change the subject all together. Skillfully nuanced stories about the numbing burdens of men having to wake up feels pretty late to the gurney. Publish more writers who’re trying to find the wound, and stop staring dumb at the blood.


I hope New Yorker will be able to seize the opportunity for the creative delivery of new moralities without continuing to foster demands for more distracting male, white noise.


Sincerely, and with great respect to each of the exceptionally talented artists mentioned above,


Jennifer Skura Boutell

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