Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields Calls Books About Gang Rape "Exhaustingly Unpleasant," And It's Not Okay
It's totally fair not to like a certain book, or to not enjoy reading a particular kind of books, or even to not be a fan of whole genres of literature. But it's not fair to give a book a bad review because it tackles a difficult subject that you personally don't want to read about, especially when that subject is rape. Yet that's exactly what Magnetic Fields lead singer and songwriter Stephin Merritt does in his latest review of An Untamed State by Roxane Gay and All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Published as part of The Morning New's Tournament of Books (which I've been following all month and enjoying quite a bit until now), Merrit's review practically forced me to pick my jaw up off the floor with how widely and offensively it misses the point of reviewing books, and maybe the point of writing them.
Merritt seems to presuppose that literature should never deal with difficult, emotional topics. He criticizes both novels as "humorless" and in the next sentence laments, "Each author finds it necessary to describe a gang rape at length." Perhaps he would have been happier if the authors had tried to make the gang rapes funny?
In discussing An Untamed State, a novel about a wealthy Haitian woman kidnapped and held for ransom, he wonders "who Gay’s intended readership is," presumably because he doesn't think anyone would want to read about something that is unfortunately, very much a part of the world we live in. As someone who not only read the novel but also thought it was phenomenal, I take offense at the implication that there must be something wrong with me because I wasn't turned off by watching a skilled author handle a difficult topic, or because I considered the novel emotionally impactful and incredibly well done.
But all the emotional power of the book seems to have gone straight over Merritt's head. In his review, he reduces the complex main character to someone who is simply "arrogant and unlovable," and he seems baffled by the fact that, after enduring the horrible abuse described in careful but unapologetic detail in the first part of the novel, the main character is traumatized and thus makes unconventional decisions. In fact, Merritt doesn't seem at all interested in the mental and emotional journey that is the central focus of the novel.
Instead of examining any of the delicate character development or any of the commentary on race of class of gender, Merritt instead writes, "The craven moral of the story seems to be, pay anyone who kidnaps your relative a million dollars as quickly as possible, ignoring the fact that they will then kidnap your other relatives, or even the same one again, as is repeatedly pointed out throughout this exhaustingly unpleasant book."
Merritt's review of Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, which is set in Europe during World War II, reaches a similar conclusion: shame on Doerr for taking on a topic that isn't sufficiently "pleasant" or humorous for Merritt's tastes. Doerr's book upsets him a little less than Gay's, though. "At least its gang rape sequence is over quickly, never mentioned again, and has no consequences at all," he writes. If that is indeed true, I would argue that it's actually a problem, not a point of praise.
The whole review is a mess of obliviousness, as authors Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner discuss in the Match Commentary section below the review. Both delve into the very complex, worthwhile themes that are explored in the novels, particularly An Untamed State, which Merritt unsurprisingly did not select as the winner of the round, and the many difficult, morally complicated, heartbreaking subjects that the book deals with. Warner raises the question "is this [review] really advocating for a world in which these subjects aren’t dealt with in literature?"
Going off of Merritt's review, I think that seems to be exactly what he would prefer, which is a shame, though I'm sure it unfortunately isn't a minority opinion. People don't like being made uncomfortable. But that doesn't mean that anyone gets to complain about how awful and non-humorous it is when people write about such subject.
The thing is that while reading about rape is heavy — God, is it ever heavy — it is still something that happens a lot. And yet it all too often just isn't talked about. Individual victims stay silent out of shame or fear or lack of support, and as a culture we stay silent, despite there being hundreds of thousands of sexual assaults in the United States every year, because rape isn't supposed to be something you talk about. So when you have a novel, one written by a survivor, that tackles this issue head on, that in fact makes a rape victim and her personal experience the main focus? That isn't something to complain about. As paradoxical as it sounds, it's something to celebrate.
Because literature isn't about making sure we never feel uncomfortable or have to confront anything difficult. In fact, it is about just the opposite.
Images: Amazon (2); Giphy (2)