Reviews | She wrote a dystopian novel. What happened next was quite dystopian.
Imagine a world in which all men disappear from the planet in a single instant: the planes they fly are left unmanned (literally), their passengers abandoned in mid-flight; men in bed with their girlfriends mysteriously disappear; the boys in the playground dematerialize under the eyes of their mothers. The girls and women left behind have no apparent reason for the sudden absence of half the world’s population.
Now imagine another world – one in which an author proudly announces his next novel only to be attacked online for its fantastical premise. Months before the book’s release, it was described on Goodreads as a “transphobic, racist, ableist and misogynistic book nightmare.” On Twitter, people who haven’t read the novel yet say it’s their responsibility to “deplatform” it. When one of the author’s friends, a writer herself, defends the book, she is similarly attacked and a major literary organization withdraws her nomination for an award for her own book.
Only one of these nightmarish scenarios is real.
The first describes the premises of a novel coming out this week: “The Men” by Sandra Newman. The second is what really happened when the premise of Newman’s book was revealed.
“Les Hommes” is not the first novel to imagine a world populated only by women. It was inspired by feminist utopian fiction like Joanna Russ’ 1975 book, “The Female Man”, and “Herland”, a 1915 novel by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, both of which explore this theme. More recently, fiction has turned to dystopian versions of a world without men, with novels like Christina Sweeney-Baird’s “The End of Men” last year, in which a virus is responsible for the annihilation half of the population.
For all the weirdness of its conceits, science fiction can allow writers and readers to access deeper truths about very real aspects of society, politics, and power in creative ways. But apparently Newman has gotten too creative — or too real — for some. That a fictional world asserts the importance of biological sex, however fanciful the context, was enough to upset a number of transgender activists online. They would argue that “men” is a cultural category that everyone can choose to belong to, as opposed to “masculinity,” which is defined by genetics and biology.
In this case, we can set aside contentious issues around gender identity and transgender politics. Even if you don’t believe that binary gender is as fundamental to human beings as it is to all other mammals, a fiction writer should be free to imagine their own universe, whether as utopian ideal, dystopian horror, or vision. complicated between the two. .
If the reader dares to enter the fictional universe of “The Men”, one thing immediately becomes clear: this is by no means a transphobic novel. It does not deny the existence of transgender people, who are woven into the narrative in several places, nor does it slander them. The world created by Newman is as scrupulously diverse as a Marvel franchise movie, populated by gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters as well as straight people of various ethnicities.
In this fictional world, where the presence of a Y chromosome dictates who disappears, a strictly biological definition of “man” is considered a moral wrong. The main characters are horrified by the plight of the transgender women who are swept away (“unjustly condemned”) and sympathetic to the plight of the transgender men who remain (one character is “paralyzed by the idea that transgender people were still around”).
But even if Newman’s novel had “erased” transgender people, it does not deserve to be denounced en bloc. Fiction was not meant to be subjected to some sort of test of moral purity.
“There seems to be a misunderstanding about what fiction or literature is for,” Lauren Hough said in a phone interview. Hough — for those who didn’t brave the storm on Twitter’s “The Men” — is the author of “Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing,” a memoir whose Lambda Award nomination was overturned when she forcefully defended Newman’s novel on Twitter. “People seem to want books to be good or bad, rather than exploring a question. Now no one can play that thought experiment again.
Yet Hough, whose memoir details the author’s experience growing up in a sex cult and her subjection to abuse, rape and homophobia, has no regrets about stepping into the fray. “It happened in the literary world,” she said. “If you don’t defend literature, then what’s the point?”
How bitterly ironic that a dystopian fantasy brought together a grim reality. In this scary new world, books are decried in hasty tweets, without even being read, because of perceived thoughtcrimes on the part of the author. Small but determined interest groups can muster a violent force online and unleash scurrilous attacks on ideas they disapprove of or fear, and condemn as too dangerous even to explore.
“I wanted to create a parable of exclusion,” Newman, who describes himself as non-binary, said in a phone interview. “It’s a book about ‘otherness,’ the human tendency to divide people into categories or groups and view our group as real people and other groups as threats to real people.”
Newman said she tends to favor fiction that explores difficult ideas in bold ways: “People shouldn’t always write beautiful books.” What better than literature to examine ideas that can disturb or challenge?
Most people don’t want to live in a world where books are reviled unread and their authors attacked ad hominem for the temerity of writing them.
There is an answer to attacks like these: Read the book.