It has continued to be a busy and fairly miscellaneous period at work — meaning both at my “day job” (since when was being a teacher of any kind ever a job that got done during the day?) and at Open Letters. After a particularly good couple of days, though, I’m feeling on top of things. Not 100% “caught up” (since when was either teaching or writing a job at which you could ever be completely caught up?), but as if the welter of tasks is under control. Probably my biggest single recent accomplishment is that I finally got the draft of my Fortune Smiles review off to my co-editors for their input: I actually started reading and thinking about the book before I even considered writing up Big Magic, so it was starting to feel burdensome not having gotten the project done. The book is superb (it just won the National Book Award, so clearly my admiration is widely shared); it’s also creepy and sad and, sometimes, uncomfortably funny. I read a lot more long than short fiction, so I’m used to working on a review that’s unified by the entirety of the book: figuring out how to manage the material in Fortune Smiles, as well as how to frame it so the review itself cohered, was an interesting new challenge. In less than a week, you’ll see how it turned out!
But this post is actually about the reading I’ve been doing in between all the real work and required reading: a rash of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels. I’ve said more than once that someday I’d like to write a piece on the whole series along the lines of what I did with Dick Francis — not that it would lead me to anything like the same conclusions, but that these books too, considered as a totality, offer patterns worth thinking about. I know that Parker has already attracted more critical attention than Francis: that in itself is thought-provoking. I expect it’s because Parker so deliberately positions himself in the hard-boiled tradition of Hammett and Chandler, and because his novels are so conspicuously clever, even cheeky, about both gender and racial politics. Practically every conversation between Spenser and Hawk is as much about being black and being white in America as it is about whatever their ostensible topic is — though what precisely Parker is saying to us, through them, about race is something I wouldn’t want to pronounce on (yet, anyway), maybe because I’m afraid that if I think hard and carefully about it, I’ll discover that there are good reasons their banter shouldn’t delight me as much as it does. I’m sure that when I go looking, I will find that this is one aspect of the series that critics have already examined in some detail.
The books are particularly interested in a chivalric version of masculinity which is at once idealized and warned against. One of the things Susan Silverman notes most often about Spenser is that he has found a vocation that allows him to use his moral absolutism and propensity for violence in the service of good; one of the things Spenser broods about, when a pause in the action allows, is whether he is drawing the right lines between what he can and can’t (or, should and shouldn’t) do with his strength. The few times he gets it wrong are among the most interesting for the development of his character: I just reread Valediction (#11), for instance, in which he is led astray and nearly killed by a young woman who takes advantage of his do-gooder instincts — a familiar enough hard-boiled trope, but one that feels more surprising in Parker’s world than in Chandler’s because Parker’s women characters do not typically fit into the angel / femme fatale dichotomy, and many of them are as strong in their own ways as the League of Spenser’s Super Friends are in their excessively manly ones. Parker’s heroic males are actually more limited as character types: to a man, they are tough, uncommunicative, resolute, and (of course) 100% devoted to Susan. (I also just reread A Catskill Eagle, in which they all band together to get her out of trouble.)
The other thing Parker’s manly men all are, though, is voyeuristic, sometimes offensively so, and I’ve been wondering why that hardly bothers me at all. It’s not that I have no misgivings about their whole manly-man thing in a more general way, but overall I enjoy the artifice and the self-consciousness of it: they enact a fantasy, in every novel, in which good triumphs over evil, and given how hard it is sometimes to believe in that possibility, I quite like living vicariously in a world in which it’s a sure thing. I like it so much, in fact, that I basically give them a pass for all their ogling. (It never crosses over into catcalling or any more active interference, or I would be far less sanguine about it.) If I think about this aspect of the novels harder and more carefully, will I discover layers of irony that excuse both their behavior and my indulgence of it, or will I conclude that I’ve let myself down as a feminist by not letting it undermine my admiration of their moral clarity and firmness of purpose? There’s a third option, of course, in which I just don’t take the novels that seriously and so what does it matter, anyway, if the heroes are also, intermittently, sexist pigs? I think we all know in our hearts that this is a bit of a cop-out. But if novels had to pass a Purity of Principle test to be beloved, I’d have to give up a lot of my own favorites — so if there’s no way out for Spenser and his buddies, that doesn’t mean I’ll toss my copies of the books. This flaw in Parker’s worldview would just become one more thing I know about the series.
The other thing I don’t mind but suspect maybe I should is Susan herself. There’s a lot I like about her as a character, including the way Parker uses her strengths, especially of psychological insight, to complement Spenser’s much less articulate moral instincts. She isn’t quite the brain to his brawn, but there’s a bit of that: at her best, she helps him resolve cases by the way she thinks about them and helps him understand them. But why must she eat and drink so very little, so very slowly? To Spenser, her quirks (she can’t cook! she scatters her clothes around!) are part of her perfection, but sometimes I worry that they trivialize her. What is it about her that inspires such absolute loyalty among all these manly men, too? We’re told incessantly how beautiful she is, in Spenser’s eyes anyway, but she never actually does anything that seems worthy of all the devotion. OK, it turns out there are quite a few things about her that I do mind — maybe because in A Catskill Eagle she is pretty much a drip from start to finish — but overall, I accept her as part of the Parker universe, even as its lodestar.
I asked once before whether I was making excuses for Gaudy Night — sidelining its faults (ideological and otherwise) because I love it so. In that case, I had a lot of answers ready to explain why my reading of the novel is, if not definitive, at least defensible. In this case I don’t even have excuses, or alternative interpretations, to settle my own reservations. I’m almost certainly going to keep on enjoying the Spenser novels, but I wonder how much of my tolerance is just loyalty, or familiarity: I’ve been reading them for decades, after all.
Are there books you can tell have problems, of this kind or some other, but for whatever reason, you don’t really mind? What makes the difference for you between books you can and books you can’t let off the hook?
I’m looking forward to your review of Fortune Smiles.
Your comments about sexism in the Spenser novels made me think of Rebecca Solnit’s piece at LitHub, 80 Books No Woman Should Read. Have you read it?
I did read it, but a bit quickly – I hadn’t thought of the connection, but now that you make it, I do see it. My impression was that Solnit was advocating that we should mind more than we typically do, or perhaps more accurately, that more people should mind more, especially the people who make up lists like Esquire‘s. I can’t argue with that in principle — but in practice?