Dear Michael Chabon,
I just finished The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and I have to say, I was blown away. The story is very good – funny, compelling, exciting – but what really knocked me on my ass was your use of language. Sir, you are absolutely 100% a genius of the written word. Your use of metaphor and figurative language is unparalleled in my experience, and I intend to recommend you to my fiction-reading friends unreservedly. There’s just one small matter we need to discuss. As I read your really-quite-brilliant book, I got the distinct impression that you didn’t realize I was doing so. It doesn’t seem to have ever occurred to you that women read your books too.
Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown fame calls books whose worldviews do not admit the existence of female readers Fond Memories of Vagina books. She writes extensively about how these books, so often considered universally appealing, aren’t:
“…who are these women? Take your pick from the treasure trove of stock characters that the male sexual fantasy complex has fed us. There are high-powered, but emotionally brittle female psychiatrists, tragic young ingenues, naive female poets, the occasional innocent farm girl — her cow milking a not too subtle metaphor for what the protagonist wants her to do to his well-read, internationally acclaimed boner — with the smell of tulips about her. Let me ask you something, Older Male Authors of a Certain Generation: Have you ever been near a cow?”
Yiddish Policemen isn’t exactly that, not least of all because you are famously married to Ayelet Waldman, whose essay about how much more she loves you than your kids made quite clear that you do not have to rely on your memories of vagina, having instead unfettered access to all the pussy you can eat. I’d call Yiddish Policemen more of a “Redemptive Feelings Towards Vagina” book, as that seems to be the primary function served by its female characters.
There are two main problems with the treatment of women in your book, both of which lead me to believe that you don’t realize women read it (because if you did, you wouldn’t have done such dumb things). The first problem is with Freydl, our hero’s mother. We learn that she met her husband Isidor, an emotionally damaged Holocaust survivor, when he was 21; fell in love with him instantly; worked to help him get his life together; and married him as soon as she turned 18. Only here’s the thing. When they met, Freydl was 14.
Now, let’s leave aside the totally obvious fact that any relationship between Freydl and Isidor would be both illegal and pedophilic, since the text does not indicate that there’s any physical relationship between them until they get married. When she is 18 and he is 25. (Vom.) Let’s instead focus on the fact that the male fantasy of an adoring, wise-beyond-her-years younger woman is exactly that, a male fantasy, and that the vast majority of women are going to look at this particular narrative detail from the woman’s perspective and will therefore find it really fucking gross. Isidor is a grown-ass man, and the idea that he’d need help getting his life together from a 14-year-old girl is offensive to men, insofar as it buys into the myth of male helplessness, and offensive to women, insofar as it implies that all women know better than all men at all times and are responsible for male uplift. Newsflash: 14-year-olds are children. They were children in 1940, and they are children now, and they have no business doing anything other than being children. Even when they’re sexy little pieces of jailbait, and now that I’ve typed that you’ll need to excuse me to puke.
Anyway. The relationship between Isidor and Freydl is problematic from the start due to the huge age difference, but it’s not sexist, exactly. 14-year-old girls fall in love with older men on the regular, and I have heard stories similar to this in real life which, while troubling, clearly work for their subjects. 20-something men immature enough to fall for teenage girls need love too, I guess. But this is what I mean when I say that you don’t realize women read your books, Michaelchabon. The Isidor/Freydl relationship isn’t exactly sexist, but it is creepy, troubling and gross, and even a rudimentary effort at imagining a reader other than yourself would have unearthed this.
Your inability to imagine a reader other than yourself is really showcased after you tell us the story of Isidor and Freydl. Speaking of their son Meyer Landsman, you say, “…it was tough for Landsman to get much out of his father about what if anything he had seen in Freydl Shemets.” When I read this sentence my comprehension train came to a screeching halt and, no lie, I thought I had misread. It couldn’t possibly have said that, right? It must have said something more along the lines of “never thought to ask his mother what she saw in his father.” Freydl is described as an ambitious, gregarious young woman who falls in love with Isidor when she is 14 and he is 21, immediately takes his care upon herself, and marries him (and presumably begins fucking him) when she is 18 and he is 25. Isidor is described as depressive, barely self-supporting, obsessed with chess to the exclusion of all else, and deeply damaged by his time in the Nazi extermination camps. What on earth did Freydl see in Isidor? Asking the reverse implies, bizarrely, that Isidor is spoiled for choice where women are concerned, or that Freydl – who, let’s remember, is throwing herself at him and by all indications is desirable – is so unappealing as to beg the question of what her husband might possibly have seen in her. With that in your mind, you might then see why I was at this point wondering if you’d ever even met a woman who could read, because clearly, you did not imagine one reading your book.
Prong #2 of the “really, michael chabon, women know how to read and sometimes we read your books” issue is, quite simply, Bina Gelbfish. I love Bina. She is smart, incredibly motivated, funny, and on top of her shit. So why in God’s name does she go back to the alcoholic, half-deranged wreck of a person that is Landsman? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those people who thinks that if a woman isn’t dating a man who makes as much money as she does, she’s failed. I also don’t ignore the fact that “loves knows no age/income level/whatever”; Lord knows, michael chabon, my personal life is not exactly a case study of relationships with career/ambition parity. That said, you practically trip over yourself to show us how incredibly desirable Bina is to Landsman on all levels – mental, physical, professional – while giving us no understanding whatsoever of what makes Landsman desirable to Bina. I know the book is told from Landsman’s perspective, but let’s get real, it’s a third person narrative. It would not have been difficult to include enough outside information that when Bina returns to him, we aren’t left with yet another iteration of the woman-as-savior story.
That’s honestly my biggest problem with Bina. She’s amazing! As a character, I love her. What I don’t love is the trope you invoke through her, and also through Freydl: that of independent, emotionally stable women parachuting into the lives of emotionally disastrous men and saving them from themselves. Does this happen in real life without horrible endings and/or deleterious effects for the women? Probably sometimes, though I’m doubtful. Can a woman make an agentive choice to do this? Absolutely. But michaelchabon, that trope is so fucking tired. You can do better … I think.
I say “I think” because of the following troubling quote you gave in a New York Times interview included in my copy of Yiddish Policemen: “Writing fully rounded, complex women, he said, ‘is something I’ve been working on.'” Ohhhh, mikechab, this is a problematic quote. As a real live fully rounded, complex woman, let me give you a pro tip: we are no different from fully rounded, complex men men in that we are all different from each other. A fully rounded, complex female character is different from a fully rounded, complex male character in the same way that I am different from you because we are different people. I do foresee one potential problem you may face here: most of the male characters in Yiddish Policemen are pretty similar to each other, and they exhibit a kind of dysfunction that, due to social conditioning and expectations, tends to fall pretty squarely in the male domain. Now, this may indicate that you are only capable of writing one kind of three-dimensional character, in which case I might gently suggest that being a novelist was not the best career choice for you. However, I can assure you that your problem is not the inscrutability of women.
mikeychabbs, I write you this letter because I think you are as astoundingly good writer who has the ability to do better than this. Your work isn’t even actively sexist, it’s just oblivious. I know that your response to criticism has lately been to disregard the criticism and instead write novels that you feel stick it to the critics. That may not be the best response to this, but in case you decide to play to type, I have a request. Please call the forthcoming book All the Feminists are Crazy Except for My Precious Ayelet Whose Vagina Tastes of Flowers. I feel like that would be appropriate.