Thursday, March 29, 2012

What Narcissism Teaches Us

     Clive Barker’s story, Human Remains, caught my attention in a few different ways, and I’m not exactly sure where to start. I think I’ll begin with what’s eating most at my mind. Recently, numerous Facebook friends reported reading, and concurring with, a article about how men are trained to hate women. I disagreed with a lot of what David Wong says in his article, but one segment stood out me as grossly unfair: in Wong’s final point, he mentions that men are only fascinated with the female body and believe women are, too. Wong uses the supportive example of male writers focusing on a female point of view--however, Barker disproves Wong’s theory.
     In his article, Wong brings up George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. I’ll confess, I have not read the series, but I really needn’t have read the books to realize Wong as misjudged his quote and that many writers are unfairly criticized for their depiction on the opposite sex. Just because a male writer describes a female character’s breasts does not mean the character thinks only about breasts or that the writer believes women always think about breasts. Comparatively, just because a male writer describes a male erection does not mean the character only thinks about his penis or that the writer believes all men always think about their penises. Wong’s ideas are ridiculous and a bit fortifying of the stereotypes our society has worked to break free from over the years.
     More specifically, Wong quotes Martin writing, “When she went to the stables, she wore faded sandsilk pants and woven grass sandals. Her small breasts moved freely beneath a painted Dothraki vest ...." Compare this to Barker’s line from Human Remains: “Keen for reunion, he slid out from his skin of sheet and duvet. His body turned to a column of gooseflesh as the cold air encased him, his sleep erection hid its head.” Most men don’t always think about their penises, but this detail helps the frigid cold of the story come to life for the reader, just as the nipple irritation of Martin’s quote spoke to me when I read it. As humans, we are all sexual beings, and from time to time, we (male or female) do think about our bodies. To try to pretend women never think about their breasts would be as ludicrous and sexist as thinking they only think about their breasts. Likewise, men only thinking with their penises is a stereotypical joke for a reason--it happens, but not all the time.
     I’ve read on other blogs that some readers have problems with the grotesque details in horror stories of urinating out of fear and soiling oneself out of pain. These details aren’t necessary. The story works without them. Not everyone thinks about how dead people defecate themselves. Some do, though. I do. The creators of South Park do. The little girl in the Showtime series Shameless does. The rationalization of the biological ramifications of expiration speaks levels for a character. Either the character is morbidly humorous or completely logical (possible something else, but those are the two character branches that spring to my mind). Similarly, having a character relate to a fascination with his or her sex should speak to that specific character. If the character isn’t one to ever consider his or her genitals, yet the character does, then that’s a fault with the writing--not men’s perception of women or vice versa. A character that admits to herself, if not others, that a wool sweater is killing her nipples will be a character much more outspoken than a character that just mentions she’s wearing a wool sweater. Also, a character that claims he has a “swamp down there” as he sticks his hand down his pants to scratch his festering case of jock itch will be a lot more cocky than a character who is too dignified to really consider the burning between his legs.
     Gavin’s character worked. He was as narcissistic of a character as I’ve ever read. He thought he was so beautiful that he humbly sacrificed himself to the creature that admired his looks and life so much. Barker’s homosexuality does not interfere with the almost asexual nature of this character, just as a male writer’s sexuality should not interfere with a female character’s sexuality. Barker sets a shinning example of how a character’s thoughts and concerns should relate to his or her own personality and desires. Gavin thinks about his penis because he’s fascinated with how his own body looks. Maybe if I read the rest of Martin’s work, I’ll find flaws with the characterization, but it’s unfair to criticize Martin’s writing because he is a male writer mentioning a female character thinking about her breasts. Every person and every character is different from everyone else, and as long as the rest of the character fits, Martin has not made any unrealistic assumptions of women or humankind in general.
     Okay, so with that rant out of the way, I’d also like to discuss the monster in Human Remains. Fundamentally, this living doll is a golem (forgive me if there’s folklore that predates the Jewish legend for I’m unaware of it). Barker takes a unique and creative spin on the golem. This creature not only protects but also feeds on its master--vampiric, really. To further the originality of this story, Barker has chosen a superficial character in a superficial career, prostitution. The master only cares about his body, and the golem cares only about the master’s body. Everything regards the same theme, so this story works well. I suppose the same story could have been done in Hollywood with supermodels, but the grunginess of a prostitution ring makes this tale so much more delightfully dirty.
     The story ends on an ironic tone as the monster becomes more human than the human because it learns how to mourn--how to feel. Ending included, I enjoyed the story thoroughly. I should also point out that I respected the informative scene where the golem describes itself. It claims that it is the only one of its kind that it’s aware of, that it’s done this numerous times before, that sometimes it’s challenged and defeated, that it never dies. This revealing was enough for me to feel satisfied with an explanation yet yearn for a just a bit more, which is a fantastic place to leave readers fixating over a story after reading it.


  1. I know the article you're referring to. I happened to agree with it, but I took it with a grain of salt. Wong is a satirist and, while I think the points he made are legitimate and valid, the individual stuff could be taken somewhat as humorous exaggeration. Underneath it all, there's some uncomfortable, divisive ideas.

    To be honest, it felt like this article was more about you wanting to respond to Wong than to comment on Barker. That's fine, but I don't really see Wong's article as overlapping with Barker's story.

    The Barker story is almost exclusively male and Gavin's character is defined by the commodification of his sex appeal. It makes sense that he thinks with his cock. He's meant to be a sexual figure and the loss of his sense of self from the vampire effect of the monster draining his mojo away was the crux of the horror tale. I'd argue that it quickly leaves the horror realm and goes into a sort of magical-realism metaphysical exploration of identity but I'm not paid enough the be the guy to hash that shit out. Different types of male characters would be less carnal, but Gavin is all ego and entitlement and carnality. He's Rawhead Rex, one big throbbing hard-on.

    As for the Wong article: I'm not about to condemn Martin for one line in his books...yeah, nipples chafe on rough wool...but I think it was a poor attempt at illustrating something that is often painfully obvious; a lot of dudes write chicks that are "men with tits" as David Simon once said. I don't know if Martin does this because I've never read his stuff and I think Wong was going for a knee-jerk reaction which always makes for shitty debate, but that doesn't mean there ain't meat on them bones.

    Bravo on the golem idea, by the way. I hadn't contextualized the creature as a golem but I think the description fits. I took it as a lover/vampire thing, but I've got dumb ass vampires on the brain.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate the conversation. I think you’re right that Wong’s ideas should be taken as humorous exaggerations, but his criticism of Martin’s work, however satirical it may be, is an issue that comes up over and over. I’ve been criticized and I’ve seen others criticized for similar subjects--writing a man’s POV too feminine or writing or woman’s POV too masculine. You’re also right that this post was a response to Wong, but I still stand by my notion that Barker’s tale correlates because it exemplifies how a character can rightly think and act in any way as long as that character is true to him or herself. Like you said, Gavin is essentially Rawhead Rex, and therefore it makes sense that he would think about his genitals; as I read, Barker’s quote I referred to shouted its connection to what Wong had said, and it became obvious Barker was writing a character the way a character needs to be written.

    I should have brought up some of the thoughts on Sarah Pinborough’s Breeding Ground, too. The problem with the main character in Breeding Ground wasn’t that Pinborough was a woman misunderstanding the male psyche, but that the character didn’t act realistically. A man distraught over losing his wife and child could not move on to another woman within a few days, then another woman a few days later. There was no rational behind his motives, and his actions did not mesh. It’s fine that Pinborough wrote a story about a sex addict, but the character should either have realized he had a problem or he should not have pretended to be a good guy that cared so much about his dead wife and child. As for men writing women as “men with tits,” the problem isn’t that a female can’t essentially be a man with tits, but that sort of character needs to act accordingly and that not all women can be men with tits.

    Writers are unnecessarily criticized when writing a POV of the opposite sex, and if someone wants to make such a criticism, even as a passing comment in an article intended for a knee-jerk reaction, I’m going to question the argument, the logic and the evidence provided accordingly. Wong made numerous other points. I agreed with some, and I disagreed with some. He does have some substance there, most of which is not applicable to Barker’s story; however, this one line about Martin’s work troubled me because it implies that readers should question a writer’s writing on his or her sex and not on his or her ability to write. That’s something I needed to voice my disagreement with.

  3. Whenever someone writes about a perspective that is different from their own, they're going to take heat. That's the nature of the game. My thesis is all about a different culture, age group, AND gender. I deeply dread finishing the thing, then being called out for getting a detail wrong. I do my due diligence and I try my best, but ultimately I'm a straight white dude from the city. I can write my own perspective and point of view authentically, but the rest is all Noh masks. I am an actor performing a role. If people call me out and say that I did something wrong, that means I didn't perform the role convincingly enough.

    A lot of guys really can't write from a female perspective. It's painfully obvious, especially in the horror genre. I called out Snow for doing exactly that. His female characters sounded like the kind of fake women Maxim Magazine makes up in their bullshit sex-advice articles. Yeah, women come in all sorts of personalities, but you tend to see this type over-represented by male writers. Then it no longer becomes a type but a representation. The nearest thing I can compare it to is my love of comic books. Most female comic book characters look like this. A little bit of cheesecake is fine and dandy by me, but when cheesecake becomes representative of the medium, then a lot of women are going to be turned off by it.

    I think that Malfi is a better writer than Pinborough and he has a stronger grasp of characterization than Pinborough. Because of that, I found his female character more problematic than the male narrator of Breeding Ground. People were accusing the lead in BG of being a heartless sex hound, but I didn't feel the characterization was strong enough and his actions were directed enough to warrant that. He was a blank, a non-character, the camera that recorded events.

    Authenticity and point of view is very important to me. I'm really into social sciences, cultural commentary, and dissecting why we believe the things we believe. It's why I was interested in what Wong had to say and why I agreed with the root and understood the hyperbole. We are products of where we come from and we presume that our perspective on things is universally shared. My job is to convincingly write from other perspectives. Whether or not I succeed is something I ultimately have no control of, aside from trying the best I can to get it right.