August 06, 2009



The problem with the review isn't really its complaints about Russo's female characters, but that the author doesn't connect this critique to a broader critique of Russo's work in general. The reviewer circles around this more general critique, but never really brings it out for examination. Namely, that Russo's writing is basically comfort food for disgrunteld middle aged men, and reflects all too faithfully their complaints about life.

In other words, Russo writes chick lit for men. That would have been an interesting review. Alas, not to be.


Have you tried "Nobody's Fool"? Women of all types, sizes, and temperment. IMHO, this book is the best of his output to date. "Straight Man", while enjoyable, reminded me so much of Peter DeVries' later novels, well-worded, witty, and madcap. "Nobody's Fool" was quite a bit deeper and longer lasting and it made for a movie that can be viewed over and over again.
As far as the "female" complaint, I missed it entirely in reading all/any of his novels and short stories.


Niall, I wish you had a blog. I don't always agree with you, but your comments are consistently thoughtful & astute.


Hannah -

You're making me blush.


ditto, niall. rarely agree, but always interested... :)


yes, i'm a little sad that newsweek published a piece that used the accusation of misogyny in something closer to the spirit of name-calling rather than serious concern. (the title question was about russo rather than the parts of russo's work that might warrant the claim.)

i'm also a little sad that TEV responded by calling newsweek's claim "shrill" (which may be another form of name-calling) rather than taking the high road. i think niall's is a good approach to the whole issue.


I must respectfully disagree with you, ever so slightly, khg. I do not believe "shrill" is name calling at all. It is a perfectly acceptable - and what's more, accurate - descriptive adjective. I also refer to the piece, not to the person, so it can't really be construed as name calling.



I think what really seems to bug you about the review is how a lack of imagination is blithely equated with misogyny, which is, I agree, quite a stretch. One would think the weighty charge of woman-hating would require more evidence before being brought in public.


Yes, you're exactly right, Niall. As someone who was once on the receiving end of an equally casual assertion of sexism (see last year's Tournament of Books), I might be overly sensitive, bu I feel that's an extremely grave accusation to make, and should not be done lightly.


What bothered me about the review was that the reviewer was using the charge of "misogyny" as a get-out-of-jail free card that absolved her of providing any in-depth critical analysis. Just yell "misogynist!" and sit back.

I mean, I can't think of a single believable female character in Thomas Pynchon's oeuvre, but that would hardly license a charge of misogyny against him.

Instant outrage has just become a new form of laziness for our chattering classes.


The Newsweek piece was below almost any blog's standards. Ridiculous. I also don't agree that Russo's work is "comfort food for disgrunteld [sic] middle aged men." His earlier work, especially -- Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Nobody's Fool -- is brilliant, and calling it "chick lit for men" is to ignore all that it has to say about class, family, and yes, male psychology. If Russo is chick lit for men, then any number of very smart, incisive female writers produce chick lit. If only we could retire such reductionism.


I wonder if Niall has read The Risk Pool and Nobody's Fool. Such wonderful novels. And what's wrong with white males being given a literary voice? {Or a rural voice, or a small town voice -- because that's what Russo really is]. Isn't this a writer's job: to "reflect[s] all too faithfully their complaints about life"? If not, you should find A Single Man, Beloved, and a score of other novels all too easy to criticize, if only because they resonate with a large number of readers.


JMW and Stephan -

You're both making the mistake of thinking that my "chick lit for men" comment represented my own view of Russo's writing. But it's not. If you go back and read my original comment, I offer that POV as a way the reviewer could made an argument about why Russo's writing fails without resorting to cheap shots like "misogyny". Since what she seemed to be saying is precisely that Russo writes for disgruntled divorced men who think all women are ball-busting bitches, etc. If she had expressed her critique my way, she would have made a provocative argument that would have catalyzed some interesting responses. As it already has.

But it's my estimation of Russo, I writer I have never read.

So you can all calm down now.


A couple of remarks in defense of Newsweek's critic: 1) Writers almost never get to write the headlines that run with their stories, and the headline is the most inflammatory thing about the review; 2) If Yabrow has a problem with the way Russo draws female characters, she has a right to say so. I don't know how much Russo she's read, but she does come up with several examples of the problem as she sees it. I do think the word "shrill" has some literary-historical baggage, BTW.


Jennifer, respectfully, this is a direct quote from the piece:

"But to call these writers misogynists is inaccurate, since they treat their male characters pretty roughly, too. Their world view is uniformly jaundiced, and no one gets special treatment. The same can't be said of a writer like Richard Russo ... "

The headline writer didn't pull "misogynist" out of thin air. It's an accurate reflection of what the writer said, it's right there in the lede.

I think my post makes clear, there's nothing wrong with taking a writer to task for writing poorly realized female characters. But to make the leap from there to accusations of misogyny is reckless and, yes, shrill, regardless of the gender of the author making the accusation.


Mark, in that excerpt you quote she's saying that Russo gives his male characters special treatment--that, in her reading, he's more sympathetic to males than to females. There's an important sentence between "to call these writers misogynists" and "the same can't be said...." I think the headline writer seized on the most controversial word in the review, which may not be entirely fair the reviewer's argument. I agree that misogyny is a powerful word that shouldn't be used lightly. I can't agree with you on shrill, though. Sorry.

If I were Russo, I'd be most offended by this: "Russo's books are like big-pawed puppies, jumping onto your lap and panting in your face, begging you to embrace them just as they purport to embrace all of human kind." Ouch.


JHoward -

I'm not sure I'm following you here. Yabroff begins by stating that many complex, fully-formed female characters have been created by men. She then adds that, on the other hand, many one-dimensional female characters have been created by male writers. Her third point is that creating bad, simplistic female characters does not make a writer misogynist. Her fourth statement is that "this cannot be said of Richard Russo." Meaning that it cannot be said that Richard Russo is not a misogynist. How is that really different from calling someone a misogynist?

Then we have statements like the following:

"Russo's books simmer with hostility toward women in general." Isn't "hostility toward women in general" a textbook definition of misogyny? Or am I missing something here?

The coup de grace in her argument is when she states that these attitudes cannot be explained as the attitudes of specific characters, characters who perhaps need to represent a misogynistic POV in the novel, but who cannot be used to convict their author if the same misogynistic attitude. Nope - Yabloff will have none of that.

"The way Russo tells it, women are bitches, bovine, and dumb (but shrewd); like witches, and their familiars, cats, they have magical powers to summon misfortune on any man who crosses them. These judgments are often expressed in a voice that is hard to locate."

Followed by:

"Griffin's father's point of view is not expressed anywhere else in the book, so it can't be his voice. Griffin himself couldn't know these details of his father's sex life. It must be the author himself. If Russo turned a similarly unkind eye on all his characters—if just one of his males was similarly withholding and manipulative—it would be less jarring when he describes the fiancée this way. But he doesn't."

So to summarize:

1. We can't say Russo is not a misogynist.

2. His writing exhibits classic misogynistic attitudes and tendencies, and

3. These tendencies can't be explained away as artifacts of characterization, but must be traced directly to Russo as a man and author.

Sorry, but sounds like a very clear charge of misogyny to me...


But, um, wouldn't the failure to treat female characters - - or females in life - - as fully formed human beings be pretty much a classic case of misogyny?

Shrill, hysterical, bitchy or not, is it really all that controversial to point this out?

Failure to "write fully realized dimensional female characters" may well be a limit to a given author's talent, yes, but it is in fact misogynistic limit to talent.

Doesn't mean that the author is worthless or a bad person. Doesn't mean that his books have no merit, or that the reviewer is a genius and her magazine is great.

But surely we all realize it does mean *something* when males are championed or reviled or identified with as complex human beings, and females are not.


KKB, you couldn't be more wrong, and I find your post appalling - it's of a piece with Yabroff's casual use of the word.

Misogyny is defined as a hatred of women. Hatred. That is a strong and damming word. Nothing in Russo's work - or in my description of its shortcomings - even approaches the level of hatred.

The world is full of slightly addled men who don't understand women especially well. But hatred? That's reserved for a loathsome few.

If you're going to use a word like misogyny, you should use it carefully, precisely and responsibly - none of which you've done here.


No way. Just because we're accustomed to casual anti-female art & culture as well as disgustingly anti-female art & culture, doesn't mean that the first instance doesn't count as what it is.

Sorry, dude, but if an artist chooses to write males as fully realized dimensional humans, and females as caricatures, well then that's a clearly anti-female part of his work. Even if it's a small part of his work.

Like I said, doesn't mean the review's genius, doesn't mean the author's shit.

But it's laughable that it's considered to be some sort of poison dart to acknowledge what's all around us all the time.

(Plus, not only does it clearly mean something when males are championed / reviled / identified with as complex human beings, and females are not, but I wonder what it means here that it's the pointing out of this fact that is so appalling, rather than the fact itself?)

Precisely & Responsibly,


I just realized who you are, KKB. I have to say, that makes your latest assertion all the more disappointing.

You say: "if an artist chooses to write males as fully realized dimensional humans, and females as caricatures, well then that's a clearly anti-female part of his work"

But what assumptions you make. Chooses? What claim do you make for being able to inhabit Russon's mind and know his intentions? It's a profoundly foolish notion, frankly - what author would CHOOSE to write any unrealized character? It's an absurd propostion that there's some conscious agenda to say "I will write only less than vivid female characters." Is that really what you believe? I always thought you to be more sensible than that.

Isn't it equally possible - in fact, much more likely - that Russo doing the best that his meager gift for realizing women permitted? Complacency and/or a lack of perception is scarcely the same thing as hatred, and I will return to hatred as the core definition for misogyny, a word that you've not only hurled at Russo but now point at me.

I'm sorry this exchange turned so testy. But I think it is flat-out absurd to pin "anti-female" sentiments on lousy writing, at least in this case. I'm a liberal guy but it's this sort of thing that gives identity politics a bad name. You really do need to be more responsible with your assumptions and your assertions. Or, you don't, I suppose - but they won't be taken as seriously as you'd like, certainly not by anyone who doesn't already think the way you do.


No way, I totally agree with you that treating women as less than human / male in art is a failure of talent, as it is a failure of character in life.

But I don't feel particularly testy . . . I like reading your blog & talking to you. I think it's fun and interesting to talk about matters of morality and opinion and art in literature, as you clearly do, too. Isn't that what we're doing right now? I didn't know we had to be enemies!

So let me lift a burden from your shoulders: you don't have to be my daddy and be disappointed in who I am or lecture me in how to be "responsible." Yikes! We can still be friends as peers and you can just happen to disagree with one thing I said about a review. Which is so much more fun. Deal?

I do think this disconnect is funny though - - I wrote in because it literally made me laugh out loud to hear your post use as a defense what to me is a classic description of misogyny: being unable & unwilling to see women as fully human.

And I do absolutely think that it says something about this conversation that the concept of an artist being called anti-female freaks you out so much more than, say, oh, I don't know, maybe taking someone seriously who doesn't already think the way you do.

And PS. of course we choose what we write about. Is that, too, considered controversial? Weird.


First and most important thing - no, we absolutely do not need to be enemies. In fact, I hope that's not the outcome of this. And I do admit, if I had realized who you were in your first comment, I probably would have been a bit less testy (and heavy-handed) in my response to you.

So, all that said, and now disagreeing as friends, I am still struck by what feels to me a real slippery-ness in your posts. I really feel like you're playing games with the language here or, at best, simply not being precise.

For example - you write:

"your post use[s] as a defense what to me is a classic description of misogyny: being unable & unwilling to see women as fully human."

First, please show me where I used the word "unwilling." I am quite sure I never did. Because I am far less comfortable than you appear to be in assigning motive. Additionally, what might be your own personal "classic" definition is misogyny is scarely the one the rest of us share - open up any five dictionaries at random and they will all describe it as "hatred of women." I feel like you continue to gloss that point somewhat.

Second, again, you ascribe motive, now to me. You assume "the concept of an artist being called anti-female" freaks me out. You are incorrect. The concept of an artist being wrongfully or unfairly accused of being anti-female (or racist or anti-semitic or homophobic) is what bothers me. You've hung a pretty heavy label on a very slender reed. There are no shortage of writers who deserve the "anti-female" label, and I am all for stamping them with the mark of the demon loud and clear. But that is simply not the case here. It's not even close.

Finally, you play fast and loose in the closing. I never said we don't choose what we write about, and it's borderline bad faith of you to suggest otherwise. Of course we choose what we write ABOUT. What I said - and please go back and read it carefully - is that no one would plausibly choose to write unrealized female characters. Certainly no mainstream fiction writer.

All the concerns that bubble beneath this about the treatment of women are real and grave and concern me deeply. But you continue to distort or willfully misread my words, even in this brief post, so what faith can I have in your ability to really consider Russo's work? I don't have much right now, I fear.

Perhaps my big failing here is I'm overly literal, overly specific, and I expect others to share what might be my overly fussy fetish for precision. Perhaps our shared failing is that you are a woman who sees things through a specific set of experiences, and I am a man who sees them through a different set of experiences. I don't know. But in the end, when words are deployed inaccurately, and arguments are framed through distortion, I will tend to recoil, and loudly. Because I think everyone loses when the discourse is degraded to the point where words no longer are allowed to mean what they mean, and expressed sentiments are twisted and spun until we're all dizzy.

But we are still friends. Really. I mean, I hope we are.


This conversation has certainly run its course, and I don’t mean to drag it out, BUT (oh but of course, but wait! but just one more thing!) well I can’t help but think that we may be agreeing more than you realize.

It seems to come down to the fact that here in our beautiful culture there’s lazy hatred, which we usually don’t bother much with, and then there’s easy-to-spot, disgusting, cruel, overt hatred. Easier to discuss, for sure. But both are valid topics, for, say a literary opinion piece on the world authors create in their work.

But I think, deeper than this, there is another idea at play. You wonder, sweetly incredulous, what sort of artist could ever possibly choose to portray one type of character as an unrealized, one-dimensional, not fully human caricature. Clearly a failure of talent!

Well, but my idea is that there are lots of people who choose to write about topics and characters in this way. And that the sort of author who chooses to consistently write females as caricatures is likely to be the sort of person who sees women in life as caricatures.

And what’s more, that’s what seems to be the thrust of Yabroff's (somewhat overblown) review piece.

But here’s the funny thing: acknowledging that it’s the consistent failure of talent / imagination / soul that drives an author to portray women as caricatures and males as fully dimensional human beings is hardly a defense against being anti-female.

Even if the author’s a doof rather than a sadist - - and admittedly, two quite different things - - that’s not much of a defense. Isn’t it really a sad shrug of admission? (Which is where I think we’re maybe agreeing with our evidence, without calling it agreement.) And I don’t think it’s the mark of the demon. I think it’s a pretty normal part of our culture. Sucks, though.

Let’s call it lazy hatred. But still, let’s not call it cool. Or invisible. And let’s leave room for discussion of it, even if on a higher level than Newsweek’s flashy, pandering, humorless, heavy-handed take on nearly every topic that magazine seems to cover. Why not, right?

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