Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Raymond Chandler, Misogynist?

Megan Abbott started a bit of a sensation recently by writing in Slate about the perils of appreciating Raymond Chandler in the era of #MeToo. Abbott was prompted by an article Katy Waldman penned for The New Yorker back in April that took Whit Reynolds’s challenge to her Twitter followers to “describe yourself like a male author would” and ran with it. There is no longer any controversy that all dead cis white male authors were misogynists. It is only a question of how misogynistic.

I’m a crime guy and Abbott focused on Waldman’s comments about Chandler so that’s where I’m going to focus, the primary position of this article being: Enough, already. Chandler was a lot of things. An alcoholic, absolutely. A dismal failure in everything he tried to do except writing. The more I learn about him the more I am convinced he was a first-rate asshole. Misogynist? I’m not so sure.

There are essentially five women in Chandler’s work: three individuals, the victims, and the harlots. The individuals are worth looking into more for what they say about Philip Marlowe than about Chandler. Vivian Regan in The Big Sleep is a worthy adversary. The sexual tension between them was well utilized in the original film adaptation by bringing Bogart and Bacall together. Vivian is smart, knows what she wants, and is willing to take action to get it. She’d fit into a 21th Century story quite well.

Ann Riordan of Farewell, My Lovely is the best person of all the women Marlowe meets, but she’s also the best person he meets, period. He, of course, wants nothing to do with her. Many have tried to explain this, but I’m an Occam’s Razor guy and look for the simplest reason that makes sense: He likes her, he appreciates her, and he knows he’s no good for her. Much is made of Marlowe’s knight errancy (yes, I made that up; get over it) but rarely is it shown better than here.

And then there’s Eileen Wade of The Long Goodbye. Marlowe might have done his best for her, at least until he found out she was imperfect, after which he did his worst. Chandler’s long “taxonomy” of blondes Waldman decries does less to disparage the demographic than to show Eileen’s perfection. Discovering the clay between her toes is more than Marlowe can bear.

What Chandler really describes in Marlowe is a man with a complicated, unsuccessful, and likely scarred relationship to women. Someone on Facebook—I truly wish I remember who, and I apologize for my failure—mentioned he had the idea Marlowe had been badly hurt by a woman as a young man and never really got over it. That makes as much sense as anything, especially when considered in the context of his treatment of Lola Barsaly in “Red Wind,” for whom he takes to no small amount of trouble and some expense so she won’t find out the dead man she still loves was “just another four-flusher.” Marlowe doesn’t always treat women the way they’d like to be treated, or the way we might like to see them treated, but he’s not a misogynist.

Why are we even talking about this? There are two related points that neither Waldman nor Abbott make that could be all we need to know. First is that Chandler was writing to make a buck. He’d failed at everything and turned to writing for Black Mask because he’d read some stories and figured he could do at least that well and get paid in the bargain. He changed the genre forever, but let’s not forget why he wrote in the first place: for sales. He typed his manuscripts up on half sheets of paper so there would never be more than that much space between engaging similes, not because he was making symbolic references.

Which brings us to the second point: he was writing what readers expected of the genre at the time. Yes, he elevated the language, but he wrote to sell to audiences he shared with writers long forgotten. The conventions of the day included a casual societal misogyny and racism that would be unacceptable today. It’s always risky, and presumptuous, to judge those of the past by the standards of the present, and this is no exception.

And what if one dives deeper than I have here and decides Marlowe was a misogynist? That doesn’t mean Chandler was. He was a drunk and an arrogant asshole, but I’ve seen nothing that shows a pattern of poor behavior toward women. We all write characters who do not share our virtues, and we all do it for our own reasons. Reading too much into the author based on his fiction is risky business I doubt too many would want to have applied to us.

And even then, so what? Are there not enough misogynists (racists, homophobes, whatever) in the word right now, today, for us to take issue with? Whether Chandler or Mailer or Updike had issues with women is water under the bridge. Some seem to enjoy taking down people who can no longer be hurt, maybe because they also can’t defend themselves. Would our time not be more constructively spent taking action about those who are causing damage today?

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