Thoughts about Blue Angel, Francine Prose

(I haven’t called this a review because it isn’t one. I have some thoughts, but mostly I want to know what y’all think about some stuff.)

Says a Boston Review review of Blue Angel: “If Francine Prose’s latest [it was her latest then but is not her latest now] novel, Blue Angel, were written by a man, its author would surely be called a sexist.”

Boy it sure would. I only finished it because I wanted to talk to y’all about stereotypes and satire. Francine Prose, set off I guess by a friend of hers getting suspended without pay for two years because he was talking about students’ breasts, has written a book about a creative writing professor who lives in terror that he will accidentally sexually harass a student and get fired forever. Cf. this. Then he has sex with a student and gets fired. But you can still sympathize with him because the student is a calculating vixen who’s just using him to gain access to his publisher and have her own novel published.

Our hero Swenson has written two novels in his career, the second of which was a wild success. But that was many years ago, and now he is floundering, trying to finish a third novel (alas! to no avail!) whilst he teaches a creative writing class at a small liberal arts college in Vermont. The college is very concerned about sexual harassment, and Swenson — whose students perpetually turn in stories about giving blow jobs and sex with chickens and incest — is concerned about it too. When he meets a young, gifted writer called Angela who I swear to God is writing a novel about having sex with her teacher, he simply cannot resist the sexytimes temptation anymore. Matters unfold from there.

Because people I like are Francine Prose fans, I am giving her the following benefit of the doubt: I was not paying attention to the mid-1990s zeitgeist she is satirizing. At that period in my life I was big into this game I used to play with Social Sister and her best friend where I was the mother bird and they were the baby birds and I would hatch them and then teach them the ropes of being a bird, such as how to escape from cats (the cats were Legal Sister, if she could be convinced to play with us) and how to take shelter during storms. It is perfectly possible that everybody was having kittens about sexual harassment in 1995, and all the college girls were possessed of a Crucible-esque (GOD that was an annoying article) fervor for destroying the lives of innocent men; and I just didn’t know about it because I was playing this awesome bird game. And maybe if I had been politically and socially aware at the time I’d have been giggling helplessly at stuff like, for instance, this:

Just as Swenson suspected from the inverted bowl of gray hair and the tense, aggrieved shoulders, it’s Lauren Healy, the English Department’s expert in the feminist misreading of literature and acting head of the Faculty-Student Women’s Alliance. Swenson and Lauren always fake a chilly collegiality, but for reasons he can’t fathom — a testosterone allergy, he guesses — Lauren wants him dead.

And this:

Deconstructionist Jamie shoots daggers at harmless, ga-ga Ruth, while Lauren Healy glares at Jamie, protecting the older woman from his patronizing, oppressive maleness.

Maybe in another time I would have found it hilarious.

I sort of doubt it, though, and here’s why. The plot “Vixen uses her womanly wiles to bring about a good man’s downfall” is a plot that can happen. But if you are going to use that trope as the basis of your book, it behooves you to be exceptionally careful in how you play it out. For one thing it’s been done a trillion times so it does run the risk of coming off (as it does in Blue Angel) predictable. In more important concerns, it is a trope that has been trotted out as an excuse to oppress women since before the days of Moses, and the world has not yet scooted itself out from under the burden of that history. The story of men being victimized by lady sex fiends is not the actual story of the world, but it’s a story that has had and continues to have remarkable staying power. It has been told so often and to the detriment of so many people that if you’re going to tell it again, I think you have to have something new and interesting to say about it. I mean that you have some responsibility — in a way that you don’t necessarily have with other types of stories — to explain why you are retreading this ground.

I do not think — Francine Prose fans, if you are going to fuss at me, don’t let it be for this! I have already disclaimed it! — that Francine Prose is a sexist bastard. She has, however, written a slightly sexist bastard book. It satirizes a historically disenfranchised group (young women) by employing one of the stereotypes that has historically disenfranchised them. And not even really subverting it, but playing it straight all the way through. That is rather ick.

Anyway. I did not wade through this entire irritating book just to hear myself talk. I want to know what y’all think about this. What elements have to be present in a book or a book’s author for it to be okay that the book employs historically oppressive stereotypes to make the plot go? Should an author have to worry about the history of a trope s/he is using in his/her own personal book?

And another question that came to mind while I was reading this book, and to which I have no good answer: How do you feel about satirizing historically disenfranchised groups? I don’t feel great about it, and I was definitely having a reaction while reading Blue Angel of like, Really, Francine Prose? You’re going to satirize college girls for complaining about sexual harassment? There’s nobody else you could satirize who deserves it more? I was a bit surprised at myself for reacting that way, so tell me what y’all think. Is it cool to satirize anyone, any time? Or is satire only good when directed at the powerful? If you think that satirizing a relatively unpowerful group is less like satire and more like kicking someone when they’re down, what differentiates the former from the latter?

30 thoughts on “Thoughts about Blue Angel, Francine Prose

  1. You put your finger on it when wondering if Francine Prose might have chosen a more legitimate target. The idea is also pretty old – David Mamet explored the same subject matter in ‘Oleanna’.

    I’m a man and I’m still racking my brains as to how you could sell the storyline in such a way as to make the mc a sympathetic victim. No luck, so far.

    • Yeah, I mean, a lot of authors have explored it! It seems very well-trodden ground, and I think Francine Prose’s apparent reason for writing the book is…inadequate.

  2. First of all, I love that you used this as an opportunity to write such a measured post and to ask interesting and complex questions – I’m really not sure if I’d have been able to do that instead of, you know, just throwing the book against a wall. Which might have been more satisfying for about 5 seconds, but nowhere near as useful in the long run :P

    I love your paragraph that starts “I sort of doubt it, though”. It pretty much says it all. My answer to questions like “Should an author have to worry about the history of a trope s/he is using in his/her own personal book” is usually yes, but it’s important to clarify that this is a requirement for me personally to find a book useful/satisfying/thoughtful/accomplished, because I generally like my media to ask challenging questions about the real world. It’s NOT a requirement for a piece of media to be allowed to exist or anything like that. I say this because sometimes people cry “Censorship! Thought Police!” in these discussions, and that detracts from their main point. I don’t want books that don’t use tropes responsibility to be banned, but I DO want the freedom to point out why they contribute to worrisome power structures, and also the freedom to avoid them for the sake of my blood pressure sometimes. And obviously I also very much want books that counter harmful representations to exist and be widely read.

    I hesitate to say “this is absolutely a no-go area” about pretty much anything, because the right kind of treatment makes a world of difference. So I won’t say that satirizing the powerless is NEVER acceptable (even because some satire is of a benign, let’s-poke-fun-at-ourselves kind), but I do think you need to be careful to at the very least present those satires alongside representations that show members of those groups in a more positive light. Of course that going for a more complex type of characterisation is a good idea even if you’re writing about groups with a lot of power, but… when you know that whatever you’re writing will exist alongside a hundred million stories about, say, straight white men being competent and achieving things and saving the world and whatever, you probably won’t lose sleep about whether or not that one satire you wrote is absolutely fair. Things don’t exist in a vacuum, and that’s important to keep in mind.

    Anyway, this is a fascinating discussion and I can’t wait to hear what all your smart commenters have to say.

    • I REALLY hate people who cry censorship when you’re trying to make a critical point. The marketplace of ideas doesn’t work if individuals allow all ideas equal respect. It works because people like you are smart enough not to.

    • In response to the rest, everything you’ve said it spot on and exactly how I feel as well (but said more eloquently than I would have!). Even without making value judgments about the validity or otherwise of the satire, I think when something’s been done a hundred times, it’s uninteresting to do it over again. The literary context, as well as the historical context, can make a huge difference to how someone will respond to your book.

  3. I agree with Ana—you gotta be careful. You can basically do anything, if you do it well enough.

    But what an abominably easy target and what a horrible pattern to repeat, especially if you have nothing to add to the conversation except repeating what came before. (I’m always baffled by the concept of “he simply can’t resist!”. Like, it takes more energy to do something than not do something. You just have to fail to have sex with someone. C’mon!)

    • THANK YOU for saying that. Seriously! I don’t understand these people who say things “just happened”. Stuff doesn’t “just happen”. You make choices. Part of what made the book maddening was how uninvolved in his own life the protagonist was — it was just, okay now this is happening, okay now this is happening, oh woe, I’m a victim. Blech.

  4. Wow. Yeah, I’d have a problem with this too. Maybe the book could have worked if it had been about that first idea–a sort of accidental, insensitive act of harassment. You could get into generational clashes and changing ideas about what’s appropriate. But when someone in a position of power has sex with a subordinate, that’s not accidental, no matter how tempting the “vixen” *eyeroll* may be.

    Or… or if she felt it was necessary for the characters to have sex, make them equals. Then you can get into some of the stuff that was going on then about consent. I was in college at the time, and I remember there being a lot of confusion among students about that. “No means no” was clear enough, at least among most people, but there was a feeling that maybe men needed to deliberately ask permission at each step, which seems …. impractical in the heat of the moment. (My own college was a little bit in the crosshairs regarding this kind of thing as there was a highly public date-rape case, and there was legitimate confusion about when rape is rape. Seems crazy now, but students were flummoxed about this stuff.)

    But yeah… telling the same old story but calling it satire doesn’t seem like the way to go. That’s just the same old story. And I don’t even know that the twists I mention would work as satire—more like straight twists or new perspectives on the old story.

    And on a completely unrelated note. My best friend and I played that baby birds game too! We used crayons as worms that whoever was Mama Bird brought to Baby Bird.

    • What you describe in your first paragraph sounds actually really interesting. I’m now mildly resentful of Francine Prose for not writing that book instead of the one she did write. I love that you’ve highlighted one (among probably many!) ways of making this story interesting and layered.

      I’m trying to remember what we used as worms! I think we mimed them — it was an outside game so we could have used real worms, but, gross.

  5. I’m interested in the issues your opening brings up—if the author were a man, then the book would be sexist. What if the author had been unknown? Why should the position of the author make a book more or less acceptable? If subject matter is fair game for one group, then why shouldn’t it be fair game for another group?

    If you find the book sexist, then the author’s gender doesn’t really strike me as relevant.

    That aside…

    I do think we’ve grown to accept comedy/satire that attacks people who do not have power. It used to be the case, that satire and comedy were directed from the lower rungs of society towards the upper classes. The upper classes always seemed to enjoy making fun of themselves enough to play along. While I think everything and everyone should be fair game for satire, there’s something about people who hold power using it to attack people who do not hold power that is off-putting.

    Both male college professors and Ms. Prose as a published author hold a degree of power over young women.

    • You know, I want to agree with your point about the author’s gender not being relevant, but I think it is actually, in a case like this. Where a book deals with patterns of power, and taps into a history of disenfranchisement, it does make a difference whether the writer belongs to the disenfranchised class or not. It’s not the only thing that matters, by any means, but I do think there are stories that a member of a historically disenfranchised class can tell without drawing the same level of scrutiny as that story would draw if written by a member of the historically disenfranchising. When you’re writing about an experience that doesn’t live in your own history, you have — I think — a greater responsibility to get it right, because you’re telling someone else’s story.

      That said, the book is sexist. The gender of the author does not, in this case, matter at all.

  6. Wow, this brought back memories. I read this book ages ago, and I was completely unaware of it as a book with a position in the world of gender debates and higher education paranoia. I was young and reading for fun, and I mostly thought it was just an awful book. The girl’s behavior made no sense, the main character seemed to have some sort of mental disorder (he kept forgetting things, and having blackouts, and finding himself doing things that he didn’t want to do). It seemed really icky and unpleasant, is my memory of this book.

    I definitely found the main character completely unlikeable. The most positive emotion I felt for him was pity–he really needed to see a doctor about the fog he lived in all the time. But mostly he wandered around doing damage to the world and screwing things up and not realizing it. I might have even thought the book was a satire of him–being an incompetent idiot and managing to hold down a professorial job. I remember being really shocked when the girl turned out to be manipulating him, because I had misunderstood the point of the book at first.

    It’s crazy how much is coming back to me about this. I remember really hating the book–and again, I was reading it completely uncritically, not thinking about it at all in the context of what the author might be saying about gender, sexism, feminism, etc. I haven’t thought of it in years, and now that I’m rethinking it, I’m kind of shocked that such a blatantly, heavy-handedly sexist book (that was, in my memory, also not very good) was being treated with so much respect.

    Whew.

    • It was icky! I’m glad I gained a jaundiced view of it pretty quickly, because I would have found it even ickier if I had been in any way engaged with the characters. But yeah, the protagonist was completely unsympathetic and I found his angst about the possibility of accidentally being sexually harassy completely overblown and silly.

  7. I haven’t read the book. But it seems to me that if satire is to be effective, it has to satirize the person in power – and this novel seems to make the vixen the powerful one. But in life, power resides in age, position, gender, and the ability dispense benefits like grades or money – and the professor is the one who has all of those in spades, so how can it be funny or ironic?

    Or, you know, you can do like Vladimir Nabokov, and show us a narrator who seems to BELIEVE that the powerless one is powerful – but do it so artfully that the Lolita’s actual truth comes through despite Humbert’s take on it. I don’t see any satire here at all. And it is sure doesn’t sound artful.

  8. Also, I was a grownup while you were playing mother bird, and I can assure you, the passages you cite would have made me cringe then as they do now. I did not see this sexual-harassment-accusations-gone-wild situation either – far from it. Sexual harassment of students continued merrily along throughout the decade, and woe betide the student who tried to get justice – then or now.

    • Truth. Did you see that thing — this isn’t sexual harassment of students, but it speaks to the point of how seriously this kind of thing gets taken — the girl who was raped at a party or something at Amherst, and the administration ignored her and was awful?

  9. I am not familiar with this author or this book, but it seems like this could have been an opportunity to explore some difficult issues in a sensitive, nuanced way. Obviously, that’s not what happened. And I am appalled that someone would satirize college girls who file complaints about sexual harassment.

    I loved this thoughtful, balanced post. I’m glad I started following your blog. :-)

    • *blush* Thanks! I’m glad you did too!

      It is awful to satirize a group that already has a very hard time being taken seriously. As if there aren’t enough reasons already for college girls not to file complaints about the sexual stuff that goes on.

  10. Not only have I read this book, I remember when it came out. I went to a book signing where Francine Prose read the first chapter. (Actually, this is confusing me, because I thought we were fairly close to the same age – I’m 28 – but we seem to be on opposite sides of a generational divide here.) Anyway, I remember this as the book where Francine Prose and I parted ways. I loved, and still love, Bigfoot Dreams, and I think Primitive People and Hunters and Gatherers are very good, in an acidic kind of way, but Blue Angel had a hilarious first chapter or two and then became very unpleasant. I don’t remember thinking of it as sexist exactly, though I see how it could come across that way – I thought of it more as a much too literal attempt to update a particular genre, where the intellectual exercise of adapting the “Blue Angel” story to an academic setting kind of took over the book. Like you said, she played it much too straight. I wouldn’t judge her by this book – I think she just peaked earlier in her career. I definitely think you should give Bigfoot Dreams a try.

    That said, I do think the opening, with its satire of college-level creative writing, is very funny. Sure, she’s aiming at a easy target, but I do like the part where the suburban white girl has written an ungrammatical story called “First Kiss – Inner City Blues” and Swenson is desperately trying to think of something to say about it.

    Also – I don’t know if this is part of it, but it just occurred to me – I think part of what’s going on with the satire of academia is that this is satire of a very low-ranking college, coming from someone who went to Harvard for undergrad and has been a highly successful novelist for most of her life. I think it’s possible (and like I said, I read the book as a teenager, so I don’t remember it very well) that part of the nastiness in the satire of, say, feminist scholars comes from the sense that this is a campus full of stupid, untalented people playing at being smart and relevant.

    • You know what, you are completely right. I had it in my head that this was published around 1995, but it was 2000. I do not know what my problem is and now I feel totally silly.

    • Aha! Solved it! The article where Francine Prose makes those extremely annoying remarks about sexual harassment accusations being a witch hunt was from 1995. And I must have looked at the date and assumed it was associated with the publication of her book. Derp.

      There are funny parts in it, I agree. The creative writing class had some extremely funny moments, especially the part you mention. It’s good to know that I don’t need to write off Francine Prose for good! I’ll try one of her earlier books and see how I get on.

  11. Ohmigosh. How disturbing. I too don’t know if I would have appreciated the satire more if I had been born at a different time, but maybe that is because now my feminist radar is on high all the time? I don’t like this idea of making teenage girls out to be horrible seductresses while the older man is just a hapless victim. This is why so many people seem to think sexual abuse of an older man and a minor girl is often a mutual decision or that the girl is so savvy and worldly about everything that she should know better, which is such a warped view of things I can barely have a coherent conversation about it.

    • Yes! The thing of the girl being “savvy and worldly” was one of the things that bugged me so much. Not that she was artful — college girls aren’t innocents — but that she was artful in a way that felt so unreal; and he was innocent in a way that felt equally unreal.

  12. Very interesting discussion here.

    I read this a few years ago, because I wanted to try Francine Prose and I generally like novels about academia. I was disappointed in it, doubtless because my expectations were too high for Prose, having loved her non-fiction. But I was essentially disappointed by the unoriginal take on the university novel – it felt like every university novel out there had been put into a blender and the mashed-up result was Blue Angel.

    I don’t generally have a problem with certain archetypal situations (having said that, I’ll be there’s an exception lurking somewhere), because the way they are written makes such a huge difference to the experience. I don’t particularly want to close my mind to anything in advance. But the problem I had with this book was that it did nothing different or inventive with its situation, and was consequently rather dull.

    • Hahahah, I love your description of this book. It was dull, in addition to its other sins. I think I haven’t read enough university novels to have that perspective — any recommendations? I really liked the May Sarton book I read a while back, about plagiarism?

  13. I think a lot of us use the word “satire” too generally. Anyone (and any group) can be a good target for satire. There’s no literary rule about who a writer can legitimately rail at.
    There is a rule, however, about implicitly recommending a better way in the course of the satire. Think of one of the most famous ironic satires of all time, Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Notice how, towards the end, he ridicules solutions that seem practical?
    One of the things I was looking at in my 500-something page dissertation on ironic blame-by-praise satire is how the irony works, linguistically and rhetorically. Back in the 18th-century, which is where I focused, a writer could go to jail for not exaggerating enough to make the point of the satire clear. Now those writers–and it sounds like Prose is one, here–aren’t literally imprisoned, but they haven’t made their meaning clear, so their point is metaphorically locked up.
    Satire is really hard to do well.

    • Oo. I have never articulated your rule to myself but you are completely right. That is an excellent rule and I am adding it to my definition of good satire right now.

  14. My cousin remembered the book much better than I did, and she pointed out that Swenson is not at all a likable figure, and that all of the attacks on feminist scholars are from his POV and are undercut by the book as a whole. She reminded me of the bit where all the female characters are reading Jane Eyre, and Swenson feels conspired against, and of the bit (which I had completely forgotten) when Swenson’s wife calls him out on not being a good guy or a victim at all.

    The problem is that as hard as it would be to watch a more likable character get taken down by forces outside his control, it’s even harder to find a good reason to watch a clash between two unpleasant and unlikable characters. Swenson is a self-centered douche and Angela seems like a sociopath, and I’d rather not spend any time with either of them.

    My other problem with the book is that Eggs, the novel that Angela is writing that is supposedly so brilliant, is clearly a terrible book. And I’m pretty sure I remember Francine Prose saying at that book signing that Eggs was a book she had started writing years before, and that she had shoved in a drawer because it wasn’t working. So it’s not good enough for Francine Prose to try to finish, but give it to a college girl and it’s suddenly a mark of genius? Again, it’s the snobbery that bugs me.

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