I offer you a riddle. It’s worthy of the Sphinx guarding Thebes, but if you’ve got half the brain of Oedipus you might get it. A father and his son are travelling in a car. The father loses control of the steering and the car crashes. The father dies at the scene but his son survives. The son is rushed to hospital. Severely injured, the boy is sent down for surgery. The surgeon looks down at the boy and says, slowly. “I can’t operate. This is my son.”
How, you will ask, is this possible?
This riddle did the rounds about 35 years ago. It was probably old even then. But the other week, I was having a conversation with a friend about some of the below-the-bar comments a piece I recently wrote for Culture House received (not the contents of the comments, but the nature of the assumption common to all of the commentators), and the friend mentioned the riddle. Later, I repeated the riddle to another friend, who’s in his 40s – an educated, metropolitan, liberal type. And the friend that I’d had the earlier conversation with also repeated it to his son, who’s 21.
And what did the riddle-busters come up with? I can tell you they went through every permutation known to the modern-day family set-up. One of the fathers is a stepfather, they said. They’re a gay couple with a kid, they suggested. Sperm donation was mentioned by both. One went for a complicated mistaken identity/body swap scenario – the son in the car wasn’t the ‘son’ who ended up in the hospital. They went through every permutation, that is, but one: that the surgeon was … the boy’s mother. Wow, they didn’t see that coming.
This is grim, isn’t it? And nope, it wasn’t an exhaustive survey, but of three people invited to turn it over in their liberal, educated minds (all men, yes – this wasn’t a control test with a big sample), the one who got it was a 60 year old man. And that’s because he remembered it when it first did the rounds. It’s that old. And he’d been stung the first time.
Now this brings me to those below-the-bar comments my friend and I were discussing. Of all the ones I read (I stopped, after a bit) all of them – to a man, so to speak – thought that I was a he. He, he, he, he, he, I kept reading. And ‘Mr’, as if they even needed to add that mocking ‘Mr’ to make their point. To one fellow (named Terry, so I assume Terry was a ‘he’ but I could be wrong) I was ‘a modern clever chappie’ who saw themselves as a bit of a ‘übermensch’. What’s more I was a ‘brute’, a ‘toughy’ who ‘never cried’.
Indeed, so baroque became Terry’s description of this imagined wannabe übermensch, with his (my) brute, dog-eat-dog, Godless conception of the world and his (my) belief in ‘mutual exploitation’ and ‘economic canibalism’ (sic), that I wondered at how such a short piece about Alain de Botton’s Art as Therapy schtick could possibly conjure up so many wildly off-topic assumptions. For Terry, not only was I a ‘he’ – [he] had that in common with all the other commentators who referenced sex– but I was a terrifyingly hyper-masculinised ‘he’. LOL.
I have a foreign name. If you know Turkish, or if you happen to know Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence (mine is a variant spelling of the love object’s name), or even if you simply bothered to Google it, you’d know it was a female name. And it’s not an uncommon female name, so, you know, I’m not hiding behind a masculine identity. So, why the default ‘he’ for what one would assume is a fairly gender-neutral profession? Far more so than that of surgeon, and we’re not even in 1980.
Do these readers assume female writers – for one can at least assume they’ve come across a few – are only ever concerned with writing topics that concern their own femaleness, and hence, why women apparently endlessly ‘witter on’ about our bodies, ‘gender-identity’ and representation, and about reproduction, children, nappies and handbags? Or do they expect a certain writing style that is full of emotionalism rather than clear, precise argument, or that perhaps possesses a hyper-nuanced, almost neurotic sensitivity in the Virginia Woolf manner? Or perhaps one that is coloured by a tentative, conciliatory tone? There can be endless variations on a theme, of course, but they can still all come under the heading ‘female’.
All my writing life people who’ve only known me from the printed page have expressed surprise when encountering me in the flesh. “I thought you were a man”, a few have said. And this: ‘you write like a man’. Is that meant to be a compliment? I’d venture that ‘you write like a woman’ would never be so readily received as one by either sex. And yet I admit, ‘you write like a man’ did give me a certain satisfaction when I was younger, and stupider. I felt it made my writing cleverer. Now I think ‘how lazy, how tedious, what a bloody insult’. I see it for what it is.
And of course I don’t ‘write like a man’ because this is essentially a meaningless statement. It’s all in the reader’s mind. Denied knowledge of the writer’s sex, readers – who not only conjure up vague impressions of the writer, but often imagine they’ve said things they haven’t – readily assume the maleness of the writer if they’re given no concrete clues in the writing. We know, don’t we, that there is no such thing as ‘female writing’? That there is only writing written by women. No? Hide the author’s identity and you’d be a fool to feel so confident that you could identify a she from a he. And I probably wouldn’t feel confident in saying this if I didn’t have a ‘neutral’ name.
I imagine the LRB, the esteemed literary journal, wouldn’t pass the surgeon riddle either. In February, one of their executive team was invited on to Woman’s Hour to defend their poor record of commissioning female critics (82 per cent male, 18 per cent female over its history). They declined, but did issue a statement (you can read it here, in journalist Viv Groskop’s blog). Under the phoney guise of sympathy, it presented the usual excuses, the ones expressing concern that, alas, female time was largely consumed by domestic tasks. Then there was the line, initially more plausible, about women writers not being as good as men at putting themselves forward, which meant that editors simply don’t get the opportunity to commission them (which still doesn’t explain why they fare less well than other literary journals).
But for me, this was the killer line: “Women”, the statement read, “often prefer not to write critically about other women”. Before you feel heartened by this, ponder the statement’s implications awhile. And no, we’re really not going to go down the road of ‘women being bitchier to other women’ and apparently giving them a harder time than they do men. This is about the job of literary criticism, and what it boiled down to – and what else could it boil down to? – is the belief, expressed here by the LRB, that women can’t actually do the job of criticism as well as men, chiefly because they can’t do the job as honestly or as forthrightly. And they can’t do it honestly and forthrightly because they are fearful: fearful of hurting feelings, or of seeming ‘nasty’, because, you know, they’re women.
And if the LRB really believes this, then, of course, they’re no better than anyone else in making lazy, unthinking assumptions about writers who deviate from the neutral, default ‘he’. And that’s grim. That’s grim beyond words.