When Mary Gaitskill’s “#MeToo” novella, This Is Pleasure, was published by the New Yorker in July, it didn’t go viral in the same spectacular way as Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person did, almost two years previously, just as the #MeToo movement was peaking.
Cat Person spoke to many as though it were true. At a time when women were sharing their collective, painful testimony of abuse at the hands of men, a short story that read like a personal essay pinballed across the internet. Now that the frenzy has passed, a new literature is in the process of emerging and it is subtle and nuanced, reaching beyond relatability and identity, and offering no easy answers.
In nonfiction and memoir, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s She Said tells how the Weinstein story first broke. Meanwhile, Know My Name by Chanel Miller, whose powerful victim impact statement opened with the line “you don’t know me but you’ve been inside me”, foreshadowed the movement’s birth. There’s the essay collection Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture edited by Roxane Gay, and Lucia Osborne-Crowley’s I Choose Elena, a masterful examination of trauma and finding solace in literature. In Things I Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl the author Jeannie Vanasco interviews her rapist about what he did to her when at a party when they were 19, and she thought, close friends. Fiction has offered readers a plurality of responses to #MeToo, from the speculative (Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments) to the contemporary (Queenie, by Candice Carty-Williams, What Red Was by Rosie Price, Shelf Life by Livia Franchini) and the experimental (Peach by Emma Glass).
Publishing loves a trend, and I’ll admit to a feeling of queasiness when a proof came through my door along with a blurb proclaiming it “the first post-Weinstein novel”. The press release for Gaitskill’s This Is Pleasure, which is to be published in standalone book form next month, bills it as “A masterful fictional contribution to the MeToo debate. Set to be the most fiercely debated book of the season.” Are we witnessing so much pain being reduced to a marketing category, or is #MeToo a useful prism through which to view the work of these writers?
So many men have tried and failed to pigeonhole #MeToo, to lambast it as a disproportionate retaliation, a hysterical movement that is more of a danger to men’s lives than their abuse is to women’s. And yet this characterisation has failed. As the literary critic Parul Sehgal put it, fictional responses to it have been “remarkably various, and they trouble debates that traffic in certainties. They come laden with confusion, doubt, subtlety – is it excessively earnest to call it truth?”
Like much of this new literature, This Is Pleasure does not shy away from the knotty problems of power and gender relations. It is told in the voice of Quin – a pervy literary editor who is brought down by a slew of accusations from young women – and Margot, his friend of more than 20 years, who feels conflicted and ambivalent about their relationship, and his downfall. Margot says: “I was angry at him, too. But did he deserve to lose his job, his right to work, his honor as a human? Did he have to be so completely and utterly crushed? … But there are other things I don’t say, can’t say. And this is where the heart pain comes.”
As Gaitskill has said, fiction is an ideal medium in which to explore such complicated feelings. She’s been interrogating the grey areas of sexual power relations for decades, since her 1988 debut collection Bad Behavior. In one of those stories, Secretary, a young woman who was spanked by her boss is telephoned by a newspaper reporter because, in a pleasingly ironic twist-that-isn’t, the man who did this to her is running for mayor. She hangs up on the reporter. In 2019, perhaps this character would feel able to tell her story, but that doesn’t mean her feelings would be any less mixed. There are no doubt those who will find This Is Pleasure an exoneration, maybe even a betrayal. In this political moment older and younger women have, after all, butted heads. But these conversations are useful. The only thing that worries me is, where are the men?
For a while it looked at those male literary contributions to #MeToo would consist of self-pitying essays of exile, such as those of the US journalist John Hockenberry , in Harper’s Magazine, and the former Canadian radio star Jian Ghomeshi in the New York Review of Books; works that painted them as complicated, tortured figures while erasing the pain of the women that they had hurt. Like Gaitskill’s Quin, these men are granted complexity. We are expected to accept their subjectivity, even feel sorry for them. But to what extent are these men thinking of women at all?
We know that men read fewer books by women. It’s all very well there being a rich and diverse literary response to #MeToo, but if men don’t engage with it, what will change?
It is gratifying to see Gaitskill refuse to “stay in her lane”, and write a male character. And then there is Ben Lerner, who, in The Topeka School, has written an examination of toxic masculinity partly narrated by a female character so convincing that I had to remind myself it wasn’t real. In a recent essay, Zadie Smith reminded us of fiction’s role in helping us to inhabit the consciousnesses of people who are not like us. “All storytelling is the invitation to enter a parallel space, a hypothetical arena, in which you have imagined access to whatever is not you,” she wrote, suggesting “profound-other-fascination” as an alternative to the term “cultural appropriation”.
Will men be accused of appropriating the literature of #MeToo? No doubt. But I hope to see more work like Lerner’s. It shows, as Gaitskill’s does, that truth perhaps exists most potently in the grey areas.
• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist
• This article was amended on 14 October 2019 because an earlier version misnamed the writer of What Red Was, Rosie Price, as Rosie Thomas. This has been corrected.