Interview: Siri Hustvedt on Perception & Gender Bias

BeFunky_Siri .jpgOne afternoon at the tail end of a very long, cold, and snowy winter, I walked a few blocks from the Tweed’s office to meet Siri Hustvedt at her home in Park Slope, Brooklyn. In the living room of her brownstone we discussed sexism, gender boundaries, neurobiology, psychology, and irony—in other words, nearly everything Hustvedt has been writing about since she published her first novel, The Blindfold, in 1992. She followed with the novels The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, the acclaimed What I Loved, The Sorrows of an American, The Summer Without Men, and several essay collections, including A Plea for Eros, The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves, and Living, Thinking, Looking.

Hustvedt’s sixth and most recent novel, The Blazing World, is a dizzying masterpiece about Harriet Burden, an artist who presents her work through the guise of three men in order to take revenge on the art world, which she believes systematically suppresses women. Harriet’s story is presented through multiple narrators, and challenges everything we thought we knew about perception. The full interview is available in print, in issue #2 of Tweed’s.

—Randy Rosenthal

Tweed’s:  People have labeled The Blazing World as a feminist book, but you’ve stated that this is one of the least leading narratives that you’ve ever written, because of the multiple perspectives.

Siri Hustvedt:  That is precisely the point: the book cannot be reduced to a feminist parable. Although I do think of the novel as a feminist text in many ways, its perspective is broader than that. There is definitely a masculine enhancement effect at work in the arts, which is accompanied by a feminine pollution effect. Maleness elevates; femaleness deflates. Nevertheless, none of this is simple. It’s true that Harriet is obsessed with being recognized. She’s a piece of work—she exhausts everyone, even the people who love her. I knew from the beginning that it’d be impossible to have a text narrated only by Harriet. The reader would become exhausted, too. I knew I had to have multiple counterpoints to her voice. The counterpoints are not only perspectivally distinct; they provide many other ways of looking at Harriet and at the work.

Tweed’s:  The multiple perspectives layer the irony. Were you using Harriet to lampoon people who use sexism as an excuse for why they’re not successful or respected?

Siri Hustvedt:  Untangling these questions, of course, is diabolical in itself. As with racism, one can always say, “I’m not a racist, but I didn’t want to work with this fellow, not because he’s black but because he’s impossible.” Such ambiguous factors always affect the story. Harriet herself argues that her experiment with male masks is not purely about sexism but about the drama of perception itself, and we always see through a contextual reality. There is a lot of empirical data in psychology on unconscious prejudice. There are also experiments called masking studies that demonstrate how this works. If you show someone an unhappy face, but you show the image so quickly that it cannot be registered consciously, that unhappy face will affect the person’s subsequent reaction to a stimulus that’s registered consciously. It has also become more and more clear that we see what we expect to see, that past experience shapes our perceptions, which are therefore not passive but active. We, all of us, harbor biases that remain unconscious. J.K. Rowling’s book published under a male pseudonym received very good notices and sold a thousand copies. As soon as it was revealed that she had written the book, it went on to sell millions of copies. Her name alone shines as valuable and will sell anything she writes. The book she had written did not change. What changed was the contextual understanding of what the book was.

Tweed’s:  The perception changed.

Siri Hustvedt:  The perception changed. She’s famous. Everyone wants to read what she writes, so the stampede begins. In that case there is no sexism, but rather the glow of celebrity that affects everyone. But similar contextual qualities affect us in terms of both race and sex.

I’ve been using an example in lectures because I find it effective. The scenario is fictional, and it goes like this: two people are looking across the room and one says to the other, “You mean that beautiful young woman over there in that skimpy dress is working on her second postdoc at Rockefeller in Molecular Biology?” The beautiful young man with the same credentials doesn’t surprise us. I think both women and men harbor these prejudices. It’s not something that’s sexually divided.

Tweed’s:  You write about the 1968 Goldberg study, in which women were given an identical essay with either a man or woman’s name attached to it, and all the women evaluated the man’s essay more highly than the woman’s. It basically proved that women have sexist attitudes toward women, too. That makes the issue of sexism much more fascinating than this reductive male chauvinist idea that men are in control and do not want women to be successful. It’s something deeper in the human brain.

Siri Hustvedt:  It’s much deeper. I think it goes way back to long-standing identifications of masculinity with the mind and femininity with the body. It’s surprising that we should continue to be in the grip of a Cartesian divide—Descartes’s mind-body dualism—and that it should be applied to the two sexes, but it is. The binaries run deep. Femininity is corporeal, personal, emotional, and masculinity is intellectual, impersonal, and dispassionate. I wanted to explode those binaries in the novel.

To read the rest of this interview, purchase issue #2

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