an open letter to Michael Chabon concerning the merits and deficiencies of Gentlemen of the Road

Here follow extensive and detailed spoilers for Gentlemen of the Road. If you intend to read that, do not read on.

Dear Mick,

You’re getting better.

Seriously. You’ve improved. As you know, I was not terribly optimistic after reading Yiddish Policeman’s Union, but – despite the fact that these two works seem to have been written contemporaneously – I see marked improvement in the treatment of women in Gentlemen of the Road. Of course, that might be because there are far fewer women in Gentlemen than there are in Yiddish Policemen and the primary woman in the text spends most of it pretending to be a man, but I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and say that it’s not. I’m going to say that you actually worked to write more agentive, self-confident women with their own agendas, and that you mostly succeeded.

So why am I writing to you again, you ask? Well may you ask, Mikey-Mike, well may you ask, because I have one reason and one reason only. If not for this, I probably would have left you alone to placidly bide your time with Ayelet and the various children whose presence you tolerate, writing more books about dour Jews with existential angst and substance abuse problems which I will consume eagerly while quietly judging you in my mind. But this one error was so insulting, so egregious, that I couldn’t let it pass without comment.

Put plainly, Michael, when a woman is captured by an enemy army, and once freed or escaped is no longer a virgin, we do not call that “deflowering.” We call it “rape.” We especially call it that if said woman later informs us that she did not consent.

Now, I know you’re writing a work of genre fiction, and there are certain considerations of tone and linguistic anachronism with which you are concerned. But I promise you, there have been words for “rape” separate from words for “loss of virginity” for as long as people have been being raped (which, sadly, is as long as there have been people), so anachronism is no excuse. Neither is concern for your reader’s delicate sensibilities. Calling Filaq’s rape a deflowering doesn’t make it easier to read about, it just makes me want to punch you in the face.

Also, not for nothing, but when you don’t call rape rape, you add to the social confusion around what is and isn’t rape. If I read Gentlemen as a young person, or even as a non-feminist person of my current age, I might not connect a “sad deflowering” to this “rape” thing I’d heard about (which usually happens via strangers in dark alleys, right?). And if I read Gentlemen as a young woman whose virginity had been taken from her in a murkily consensual-or-not fashion (read: the kind of rape we don’t like to call rape), I might take Filaq’s story as corroboration that what happened to me wasn’t rape, it was this other thing. It’s important that I, your young or sheltered reader, am able to identify rape wherever I see it, and it’s important that I, your reader who has been raped, am able to find corroboration that what happened to me was rape, and yes, you have a responsibility here. You are a public voice writing books that lots of people read, and you are married to a self-proclaimed feminist, and even if you were neither of those things you’d have a social responsibility not to contribute to discourses that continually marginalize the experiences of rape victims.

Other than this, though – well done. Well done indeed. The female characters in Gentlemen are, for the most part, well developed and coherent. Maybe next time you can avoid these sorts of semantic difficulties, and we’ll be 100% on the ball.

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About Sara

I like to talk about media, food, and gender.
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2 Responses to an open letter to Michael Chabon concerning the merits and deficiencies of Gentlemen of the Road

  1. SWNC says:

    You’re absolutely right. Having said that, I *loved* Gentlemen of the Road. So, so much. My favorite Chabon ever. (The rest of his books feature a distressing lack of swordplay.)

  2. Red Jenny says:

    I loved GotR. Jews who don’t take shit. Loved it.

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