Recently, Electric Lit published an essay by Erin Spampinato titled, “The Literary Roots of the Incel Movement.” In it, the author argues that a culture of reading and privileging “white male” (para. 5) texts has resulted in the modern-day incelmovement (note: the term “incel” is a portmanteau for “involuntary celibates.” It is most often used by white, male, heterosexuals online who claim they cannot “find love/romance” because of contemporary culture’s “demands” on their gender [read: supposed emasculation]. The term is now often used as analogous to misogynist because these self-described incels believe they have a “right” to sexual intercourse, without condition).The author names titles such as Great Expectations, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Things They Carried, to support her point that much of our school-taught canon (aside: I was not required to read any of these in school) is made up of books whose protagonists are sexually frustrated, then connects that literary frustration to modern-day “young men [who think] that male pathos is so pathetic, so worthy of tribute” (para. 1). Just a few sentences later, she connects that sentiment to the dawn of “the incel,” a “monstrous birth of our casually cruel and anonymous internet culture [and] a product of Anglo-American literary culture, which treats the topic of male sexual frustration as if it is of prime importance to us all” (ibid).
While I find much of Spampinato’s argument regarding the tradition and its still-too-exclusive canon compelling and accurate, the leap she makes between reading literature (even literature of the white male) and becoming a violent misogynist and/or internet troll, is tenuous at best. Consider two prominent incels (I refuse to use their names, but they are easy enough to find) who made headlines for their violent attacks in North America: one, a self-identified incel who carried out the recent Toronto van attack was 25-years-old; the other, described as the Toronto terrorist’s “hero,” murdered six people at a University and was 22-years-old. Isn’t it just as (perhaps even more) likely that the dominate narrative exposure these young men had was not from literature, but from, say, streaming television and social media?
In addition, study after study suggests that reading classic literature/literary fiction, among other genres, makes people more humanist and empathetic. In addition, study after study demonstrates that people are reading less and less (especially “literature”). People having these conversations (writers and readers of articles like this one) are discussing these very ideas about men and women, masculinity and femininity, race and class, nationalism and colonialism, patriotism and religion, in literature and elsewhere. Are we to believe that these “incels” are reading literature and also having these discussions? Reading these books but ignoring their themes or interpreting them differently? Treating The Awakening, for example, as a story about woman who got what was coming to her, rather than an example of a courageous woman who boldly demands her sexual freedom in a time when that was nearly impossible? And, assuming they are readers, what’s to say they’re not reading someone like Ayn Rand?
I take Spampinato’s point that we must continue to diversify the canon and discuss what gender (and other) disparities in reading and publishing have done to readers, writers, and cultures to date; however, I think the author’s primary thesis is unsound and no evidence is given to support her major claim, that reading classic literature causes misogyny. Do we have statistics, for example, on incel members and their reading habits, including choice of texts, frequency of reading activity, or favored genre? Where does the writer’s assumption originate, that literature causes these tendencies rather than helps people realize them? After all, without any data, isn’t it equally possible that these men simply do not read literature and therefore are less empathetic because of lack of exposure to humanistic ideals; or that they have not studied literature and therefore lack comprehension skills and global awareness?
Indeed, while some kinds of reading might make human beings “better people,” other genres seem designed to do the exact opposite. How do we know these men are not instead being influenced by, say, classic westerns or true crime novels, or comic books? (no shade meant to these genres!) Spampinato suggests that the problem is classic literary fiction, specifically, and its focus on male sexual superiority, that causes cultural sexism/misogyny, but fascinating textual analysis aside*, where is the evidence that would support this claim? As a part of the larger context, certainly our literature is a contributing factor to how we think about and communicate with the world around us. But to claim it is the root?
Perhaps, if we accept that these “incels” read classic literature/literary fiction, we should also look at the difference between “reading” and “comprehending” (or learning). If we are to grant that what she says is true, an overabundance of white male literature that privileges male sexuality is to blame for misogyny, must we then jump to the conclusion that it is because young men are simply reading a lot of these stories? Or is it possible that they are reading without understanding (or discussing) the issues? Here’s an excerpt from the essay:
The literature we choose to teach our children evidences how untroubled we are by this disturbing cliché that rage and a fascination with violation are characteristic features of (again, white) male sexuality. This is of course one of the main points of O’Brien’s beautiful book, but it doesn’t change the fact that as a teenager I had read many fictional accounts of men’s rape fantasies long before I had ever read a literary account from the woman’s perspective of rape, or even of consensual sex. I was trained to accept that male sexual frustration was a serious issue because I read hundreds of pages about it before the age of 20, far more than I read about issues of undoubtedly greater social import, like the legacy of slavery, the alienation of women and people of color from public life, or the violence of the settler colonialism on which the United States was founded. Perhaps these novels even coached me into taking male sexual frustration seriously through a kind of frightful education: look what happens, they seemed to say, when men don’t get what they want. (para. 6)
I have highlighted two sentences in this excerpt because they are profound personal post hoc reflections from a thoughtful and critical reader (although she problematically provides just one scene/motif from each representative novel, all of which are arguably complex, and then suggests that these books are “about” that scene/motif). I think it is important to recognize, however, that while I believe she is accurate and honest in what she describes here as her own experience and edification, the anecdotes are also being presented in such a way as to suggest a generalization about larger reading outcomes for other groups/populations. I am not a female-identified reader, so I cannot speak to how broadly the author’s personal experiences translate to other women, but I believe her. As a gay man, I certainly felt the lack of LGBTQ representation (or at least the acknowledgement of it) in my own classes, even throughout college.
It seems important to acknowledge, however, that literary criticism itself has existed for generations because of these very individual interpretations and analyses, and that attempts to assert cultural causation (with any kind of media, really) have been regularly and resoundingly defeated. In other words, Spampinato’s personal reflections on and responses to the assigned reading she was given in school are an important and valid part of this conversation, but I am reluctant to accept them as examples for causation between reading literature and becoming “fill-in-the-blank” (in this case, militantly misogynistic), if only because it stems from a projection of her experience onto others’ reading experiences (all the while assuming that these other people have done the same reading and absorbed the same messages). It is also reductive to say that the incel movement is born in any single thing (i.e. “a product of Anglo-American literary culture”). Perhaps this is hyperbole to generate discussion about our (this community of readers) reading habits, or to illustrate just how systemic and institutionalized the problem of misogyny is; but if that is the case, it needs to be stated more clearly.
In the rest of this passage, Spampinato suggests that reading a number of texts that include, for example, rape fantasies, results in a kind of acceptance of or resignation to rape culture. If this is true, is that not a fault of the teaching and study of literature, rather than the literature itself? Perhaps that is too fine a distinction, but for those few remaining high school programs teaching classic literature, the question would seem highly relevant. It reminds me much of the debates over teaching books like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which some people object to based on its use of racial slurs (despite that fact that reading in context would and does reveal a great deal about why Twain chooses to use those foul terms, and about history itself). If “we choose to teach our children” literature that is violent or fascinated with white male sexuality, does that mean we accept those features as good, necessary, or normal? In other words, does “reading make it so?” (Et tu, “violent video games create violent people”?) Do we look at every other feature or theme in literature independent of its context, whether classic or some other genre, and suggest that reading a lot of it makes us think that only those issues are important or that only that way of thinking is the right one? Or is teaching these texts an opportunity to have these very discussions? To reject them, question them, teach alongside them? And is that happening?
Spampinato gets to these same questions near the end of her essay. She asks us to think about why we almost intuitively recommend Catcher in the Rye to a teenager, but not The Bell Jar. She suggests that we do not need to eliminate all these white males from the canon, but we do need to change the conversation and we do need to add more diverse voices. With all of these suggestions, I heartily concur. But just as we should avoid unexamined and habit-based recommendations in literature (casually or in the classroom), so too must we be cautious in suggesting, especially without evidence^ and in this age of anti-education, anti-intellectualism and “alternative facts,” that the activity of reading literature is damaging us morally, socially, or otherwise. That seems, to me, a leap too far.
*Her analysis of this theme in the texts she provides is interesting and provocative. I would like to read more.
^No evidence is presented that incels are reading classic literature/literary fiction of the types addressed in the article and no evidence is provided that reading literature causes negative socio-cultural behaviors (indeed, most studies seem to suggest the opposite). For a comprehensive study of this phenomenon and why “the answer is not simple,” see Angela Nagle’s book, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right (John Hunt 2017).
Thanks for your really interesting comments on this. I didn’t read any of the books that Spampinato cites at secondary school, and I didn’t study literature at university, so my experiences are coloured by that. However, when I was a teenager, I read a lot of classic literature off my own initiative, and do not remember coming across a lot of rape fantasties – in fact, I think the first time I read a rape scene I was in my mid-twenties, and it was certainly not a glorification thereof. I think if curricula are including an excess of rape fantasies, that is a reflection on the person devising the programme of study and not on the canon as a whole. In fact, the Dickens novel I read at school was Great Expectations – featuring a young man largely hamstrung by his obsession with one woman, rather than glorifying it. Certainly the way it was taught reflected that idea – that Pip brings misery on himself by refusing to accept Estella’s “no”.
There is also so much to critique in the writing of women who have been accepted into the canon, and this seems to be ignored in the article. To take another gender dynamics/sexual politics issue, I grew up thinking that men would never be attracted to me and that I would have to be pathetically grateful if they ever were, because plainness, social awkwardness, and the wrong type of cleverness are frequently presented by female authors as repulsive traits in women – including, for example, Edna Ferber, LM Montgomery, and sometimes even Jane Austen – all women whose books I read obsessively as a teenager. I think that perhaps it would be helpful to acknowledge that just including books by women is not a panacea to fix misogyny (in men or women).
One more anecdote – the men I know in real life who treat women with arrogance and entitlement tend to be men who pride themselves on not reading, or at least not reading fiction, in the same way that they pride themselves on not listening to women. I think diversity in the canon is hugely important, but I do not think it would reach these men, who are often extremely practiced at ignoring experiences and voices that are inconvenient to them.
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Excellent points — particularly the last paragraph. And God forbid these men would ever consider reading anything a woman wrote.
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Thank you for your thoughtful response. You’ve made a lot of great points.
I need a “like” button for this.:)
The proposition that reading Dickens and other white male authors in the canon leads to the incel movement is not one I can believe. Indeed it seems deliberately perverse. Does *anyone* believe that those two guys spent their spare time reading Plato and Dostoyevsky, and that’s what spurred them to kill? (I’m also really curious about just what she did read before the age of 20 in order to have read “many fictional accounts of men’s rape fantasies.” I have a vague idea that maybe they were all guys like Norman Mailer and Philip Roth or something? I have not read those guys.)
I cannot say that I read a lot of classic literature as a teen; I was allergic to the word ‘classic’ at the time. I had (unknowingly) read a whole lot of classic children’s lit as a kid, and my teen reading probably tended towards women writers on the whole. I read a whole lot of Madeleine L’Engle, Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper, Katherine Paterson, Robin McKinley, and (embarrassed cough) Anne McCaffrey. I then hit my comparative literature program in a state of woeful inadequacy, but even so I don’t remember a lot of reading about the inevitability of violence if women don’t sleep with men on demand. It’s possible that my mind tends to skim over this theme or read it differently, and I do tend to be bored by what I think of as really Man Literature, so maybe I haven’t read those books.
You do find a theme in medieval chivalric literature of “unkind” women; a given knight loves a lady, and she is not interested, which makes her unkind and bad. She still has her agency, but there’s usually a heavy implication that she ought to be complaisant. I doubt incels are reading those either, though.
It seems obvious to me that “incels” is very much a phenomenon of the Internet and the way it can foster echo chambers of belief that were hardly even possible before. Whatever literary reading the guys are doing, it’s almost certainly not Trollope or Moliere or Chekhov.
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Thank you very much for your response. I am concerned with social media and the ways it is creating a culture of narrative narcissism and self-centeredness. In my experience and from what I’ve read in the research, a literary habit tends to encourage outward-thinking and feeling; the opposite seems to be happening with the internet which, even when we are “reading” others’ timelines and stories, we do so in a way that is about the self (one-upmanship, self-criticism, self-doubt, constantly comparing one’s life to everyone else’s, etc.) This seems to me a more likely “root” for misogyny.
Yeaaahh, I’m not sure I agree with her argument. Agreed, there should be far more diversity in “canon” — so many female authors who are ignored while men are constantly taught in school.
In particular, I do have a problem with Great Expectations. I read it in college and loved it, but on a recent reread, realized that pretty much EVERY WOMAN in that story is just plain horrible. Mrs. Gargery is an evil shrew who terrorizes Pip and the saintly Joe; Miss Havisham hates men, and has taught Estella that all men are evil and she should use her beauty to torture them. Over and over in Dickens, the women are either bland, pretty heroines aged 18-20 and all the other women are either evil or grotesque comic characters. I don’t know if I can read his books any more. However, I can’t say that reading Dickens would make someone a misogyist; I think if it’s used as a classroom text, it should be a teachable moment.
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I can’t argue with you, there. And the classroom is a great place for context. Doesn’t Dickens also encourage us to think more compassionately about the poor and about child labor, etc.? I don’t know that we can say one element of a writer’s work makes the works “about” that and therefore “trains” us to think of things/people in a particular way. For example, the first lesbian novel I ever read (written by a lesbian, about lesbian characters) contained a graphic female-on-female sexual assault. But I can’t imagine walking away from that book (which is excellent) thinking that lesbian relationships are therefore violent ones.
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I’m not big on Dickens (I prefer Trollope!), but your comment makes me think….I think most of the characters in Dickens, male *or* female, are either overly-virtuous angels or caricatures. David C. and Pip are fairly realistic….I can’t think of a lot of others. Sure, he’s worse on women, but it’s not by that much, IMO. Oh, and there are goodly housewives here and there, come to think of it — women like Mrs. Cratchit. Mrs. Micawber would be one if she could!
Good points. Dickens comes from the school of didactic literature, for sure. So, while he might not be as pointed as literally naming his character “Miss Charity,” or whatnot, as some of his predecessors did (looking at you, John Bunyan and Everyman!), he certainly made his characters allegorical.
I’m also a much bigger Trollope fan than Dickens fan, however, I have to throw in mention of Aunt Betsy Trotwood from David Copperfield, who was a wonderfully complex female character.
Ah, yes! She’s probably my favorite Dickens character. And then Maggie Smith played her in the film adaptation, and what’s better than that? 🙂
This is an excellent and thoughtful post. It strikes me as the other side of the story that was reported last year, about the alt-right taking Jane Austen as their literary mascot because: polite white lady. (But clearly not actually reading and/or comprehending Austen or her messages, especially Mansfield Park.) While I too would like to see more diversity – women, POC, LGBTQ, immigrant narratives, etc. – in school curricula, I don’t think the current roster of books taught, which as you point out varies widely from school to school (I had to read The Catcher in the Rye in high school, and The Things They Carried in college) is to blame for incels. I am with you that reading tends to create more empathetic people, who are adept at seeing and appreciating other perspectives and make better citizens as a result. So it seems to me, as you say, that incels either don’t read or don’t comprehend. There are very good reasons for updating the curriculum that is taught, especially in high schools. It does give far too much air time to cishet white males. But I can’t see it causing the incel movement. I just can’t.
I will say, somewhat vaguely (and I’m sorry) that not every white male-authored book should be replaced. The curriculum is designed to reach the maximum number of students (and sometimes teach to a test, unfortunately) and teachers often don’t control it anyway (former education lawyer here, opinions my own). It definitely needs updating, but some books might be a bit too real. The example of The Bell Jar – I read that as a teenager struggling with severe depression and it was very, very, very bad for me. But then, it could have saved someone else’s life where it made me worse. Books have so much power.
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Thank you for your thoughtful response and perspective!
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I am in a doctoral program, and for our first class we are required to journal and read regarding various issues related to cultural influences in education. I am reading your blog and finding many profound truths. Thank you. I invite you to follow me at truthnovarnish.wordpress.com
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I agree with everything in this article, but I can’t help but wonder how people like a certain alt right leader become the way there are with all the research there is about empathy and literature. This white supremacist has BAs in English literature and music and a MA in humanities. He had to have both read and comprehended lots of literature. There is obviously some sort of disconnect with outliers like this guy, though I do not believe that literature can be blamed for incels or other bigotry.
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Perhaps there are some people who don’t read anything beyond what they are forced to read in school, and don’t have thoughts of their own beyond what they get from their environment, and then the “school-taught canon” (if there were such a universal phenomenon) could be a concern. But in general, even if you are reading about an unsavory or unsympathetic character, you hopefully have the balance of your own experience of human beings and real-life situations, as well as other kinds of books, to help give some distance and make you realize this is just one way of looking at things.
I think the best remedy is to read widely and diversely, and with an open heart. And I believe that people who are truly interested in reading, as opposed to walling themselves off in some enclave of mental sickness, are going to be the ones most resistant to any kind of one-sided thinking. Reading by definition is about letting in other points of view.
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