A successful literary agent was reminiscing to me recently about her early days in publishing. Twenty years ago, two subjects were considered beyond the pale: baking and feminism. “If you said you had a book of essays on feminism, it was ridiculous,” she said. “People would put on their profiles ‘no essays, thank you very much’.”
In 2021, you can’t move for feminist essay collections. It’s not just academics and journalists such as Amia Srinivasan, Jacqueline Rose and Katherine Angel, but also novelists and poets: Lucy Ellmann, Jeanette Winterson, Siri Hustvedt, Olivia Laing and Nina Mingya Powles.
You could turn that scene with an agent and a female novelist on its head: “I mean, a novel is fine, but what about a book of essays on women’s bodies? Or a manifesto? OK, well perhaps a memoir! How about memoirish essays on why you’ve swapped men for… houseplants?”
If I sound cynical, it’s only because some of these books feel cynical too: feminism as a trend, feminism as a sell, feminism as a special table in Waterstones. There are many bold and brilliant essays being published that perhaps wouldn’t have been a decade ago. But they are rubbing shoulders with some – pardon the phrase – “MeToo” collections, which are often less informed and robustly argued than your average newspaper comment piece.
I’m afraid that Eimear McBride’s nonfiction debut falls into this category – and it doesn’t help that it has been formatted to look like a newspaper column. Compact in size, the book’s pages fit around six or eight words a line and roughly 150 words per page, with the text broken up using catchy subheads (“Lucky bitches!”). McBride calls the work, produced after an invitation by the Wellcome Collection, a “subjective collection of thoughts” about “the disgust that appears to mystically attach itself to the female body at birth”.
Over the past 100 years, she argues, women’s liberation has been “inadequately realised” because female bodies are still viewed with disgust. Women are variously seen as animals, meat or dirt, “unfit for decent ‘respectable’ treatment their male peers can take as a given”. Sometimes, this disgust is “rampant and ill-concealed”; at other times it is “insidious and almost imperceptible”. But its effect is to keep women exiled from humanity.
But who is it who views women as subhuman filth? Men? Society? McBride writes with plenty of conviction but not much precision. She claims that a nebulous group called “the pillars of the old world” treat women “with all the disgust that they feel we are now, by their logic, due”. Over the course of the 176-page essay, these pillars are revealed variously to be the Catholic church, the porn industry, Daily Mail columnists, the advertising industry, the music industry, a music critic who wrote some vile things about Debbie Harry, the Kardashians, a Canadian police officer, a Conservative party candidate who once stood in Norfolk, ladette culture, Immanuel Kant, a 2015 short film made by some pole dancers in California and so on… Which is to say McBride has written a wide-ranging howl of despair about what eventually she calls “the Escher-like inescapability of the patriarchal framework in which we live”.
In many ways, it makes perfect sense for McBride to write about the objectification and shaming of women through their bodies. In her first two novels, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing (2013) and The Lesser Bohemians (2016), her fractured, febrile syntax was well tuned to sexual desire (“Then where he slides one of mine so I Jesus! I eyes wide”) as well as sexual violence. McBride was trying to get under the skin of her female narrators, to show where thought and physical sensation become inseparable. She helped to open up the fictional space for fearless, experimental writing about sex and power.
However, the essay form does such an allusive writer few favours. Arguments are not well served by diffuse references and language struggling into expression. Here, McBride sounds somewhere between a sanctimonious sixth-former and someone delivering an all-encompassing pub rant, full of hyperbolic claims. She speaks of women being dismissed “wholesale” from the centres of power and later says that feminism had stagnated until the #MeToo movement, which clearly isn’t true – “fourth wave” feminism had been bubbling away for a while. She also ranges freely over misogyny in other countries, citing female foeticide in India or women being covertly filmed in Korea, without taking in any of the nuances of those particular cultures.
Much of the research feels dated (a study from 2008 on women as sex objects in US magazines) or else the kind of thing columnists scrabble around for when they need to knock out a quick 600 words. Psychology Today is a fine publication but I’m sure the Wellcome Collection had more to offer. If the writing were wittier and more nimble, McBride might have been able to get away with this, but it’s more often rather fuddy-duddy (she refers several times to “scantily clad celebrities”) and the long, impenetrable sentences that made her last novel, Strange Hotel (2020), a bit of a chore seem to have become a habit.
You got the sense that even McBride was frustrated by her own linguistic tangles, her narrator growing tired of “pseudo-intellectual garble which, if I’m honest, serves the solitary purpose of keeping the world at the far end of a very long sentence”. And yet here’s one example from her essay: “Strategically, then, the effort to derail women’s struggles against the impositions of their ‘brand’ has focused on blurring their ability to recognise the difference between what they know themselves to be and how the lenses of objectification oblige them to experience the world.”
It’s not until the essay’s afterword, written in the immediate aftermath of Sarah Everard’s murder, that McBride finally hits her stride. Writing about the way in which the women at Everard’s Clapham Common vigil were thrown to the ground by the police, McBride suggests that there was more force here than at the Black Lives Matters protests in the UK because “racism is perceived to be a volatile political issue, with deep institutional roots and the potential to cause major social disruption”, whereas “misogyny has always been the most socially acceptable hatred, relegated to the domestic and the private realm and, more often than not, just seen as a bit of a joke”.
Whatever the merits of this particular point, Everard’s death would surely have made a better point of departure for this essay. There are plenty of neat observations and clever side-swipes, but not enough to merit being packaged into a book. It’s just too hazy in its targets and it doesn’t say anything that a columnist such as Caitlin Moran hasn’t already said more powerfully (and humorously). The fact that she makes it look easy doesn’t mean it is.
Why doesn’t McBride focus efforts on her own industry? I would have loved to read her critique of the way women’s bodies are depicted by men in contemporary fiction. But this would require naming names and in the cosy literary world, that would never do.