After completing The Female Man, I was glad to leave the book behind me. I’m not sure why I didn’t like this novel; it was not because of its feminist sensibilities, nor was it its odd narrative style that marks it as postmodern. I haven’t been able to pin it down exactly, but as a literary work, it struck me—to bring up Russ’s own words in her mock review blurbs (141)—as, well, just plain bad.
Maybe that is too harsh, but I’m thinking now of one of my favorite aphorisms from Gustav Flaubert (although I don’t know if this is completely accurate since I could not locate the original source): “The author, in his work, must be like God in the Universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.” The trouble with Russ’s novel, for me, is that the author is both too present AND too visible. Perhaps that’s the point of the challenges to traditional structure of fiction in postmodernism, but by way of contrast I recall House of Leaves, in which the author is very much present but only as an unseen force and background. Danielewski masterfully makes himself felt throughout his novel without intruding too much into it. As readers we often wonder what he is “up to,” but he has a way of never revealing himself too much. With House of Leaves, one gets a genuine sense of the tenuous line of trust that must be established between an author and reader that can be tested but should not be shattered. The Female Man, on the other hand, seems to be heavy-handed and self-conscious; it lacks the accompanying wit or engaging intellect. It is as if the novel simply became a prop for an ideological tract. Nevertheless, perhaps it served its purpose at the time and the author herself would be delighted if later audiences found it dated (although she probably would be offended that I also thought it was characterized by a lot of drivel, another word from her mock reviews).
Having said all that, I found the essay by Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” that we read as a companion assignment to be interesting and thought-provoking. My initial dislike of Haraway’s essay was mitigated by further exploration in class of what she was trying to say, so I was better able to engage in the themes she raised and how they related to Russ’s book. Also, despite all my complaining about The Female Man, the class discussion, generated by the themes of the book and the questions raised by Professor Sample, has been lively, engaging, and even hilarious at times. So I guess even a bad novel can generate great discourse.