Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Simone de Beauvoir on writing

Jerry Stratton, May 6, 2005

I have just finished a review for Mimsy on Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. In it, de Beauvoir writes about how women become isolated and ignorant of the wider world.

This lack of knowledge of the outside world engenders a narcissism which trivializes women’s observations on the world. In the section on The Independent Woman, she writes about the woman who becomes an author, and describes an inferior person who is, really, exhibiting the standard complaints of most male or female writers:

If they are sure of themselves, they take for granted that the book or picture will be a success without effort; if timid, they are discouraged by the least criticism. (p. 706)

The woman writer will still be speaking of herself even when she is speaking about general topics: one cannot read certain theatrical comment without being informed about the figure and corpulence of its author, on the color of her hair, and the peculiarities of her character. (p. 707)

Few books are more thrilling than certain confessions, but they must be honest, and the author must have something to confess.

Woman’s narcissism, according to de Beauvoir, prevents her from seeing what it is they have that is worthy of confession; they do not know what is new experience and what is a “banal cliché”. They have nothing to compare to but themselves and so do not know what the rest of the world has already done.

...she lacks, further, the courage to be displeasing as a writer. The writer of originality, unless dead, is always shocking, scandalous; novelty disturbs and repels. Woman is still astonished and flattered at being admitted to the world of thought, of art--a masculine world. She is on her best behavior; she is afraid to disarrange, to investigate, to explode; she feels she should seek pardon for her literary pretensions through her modesty and good taste. She stakes on the reliable values of conformity; she gives literature precisely that personal tone which is expected of her, reminding us that she is a woman by a few well-chosen graces, affectations, and preciosities. All this helps her excel in the production of best-sellers; but we must not look to her for adventuring along strange ways. (p. 708)

Knowing the insecurity of many writers, I have to wonder if she is speaking of herself here. The back cover quotes her as saying,

One day I wanted to explain myself to myself... And it struck me with a sort of surprise that the first thing I had to say was ‘I am a woman.’

Certainly, this applies to many writers of both genders today. But I don’t think it ever applied to de Beauvoir. I have read “The Mandarins” and it was brilliant, insightful, shocking, and scandalous, and not at all on its best behavior.

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