Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Book review: Women, Men and the Whole Damn Thing, David Leser (2019)

Leser is a good writer, there’s no question about that. His profiles from a generation ago were used as texts in at least one of the units of study I completed a decade ago for a journalism degree. I can’t say if they are still being used to teach there, but it doesn’t matter: those features – articles of length that promise to provide a broad overview of a subject, in his case the details of and direction taken in a person’s life – are still emblematic for me of something valuable about journalism that no amount of cynicism and argy-bargy on social media has been able to wipe away.

So, completeness and comprehensiveness are central to Leser’s way of approaching his work, hence the title for this ambitious but flawed book. It occurs to me that Leser might have experienced hubris after his Good Weekend article on this topic resulted in a large number of responses from people in the community. He seems to have thought that by simply multiplying the scope of that story he would be onto a dead cert to win big. It turns out that this was an illusion.

When you’re writing a book such as this, one that aims to encapsulate in a couple of hundred pages the facts of thousands of different cases that are united by a single theme, you have to do your preparation well if you want to be credible as a witness and as a chronicler. So, because the community is so divided on this issue Leser feels the need, from the outset, to marshal all the ammunition he can to establish the need for the review.

I don’t think there’s much doubt that we need to be looking for ways to address criminality but it does seem a bit ambitious to assume that mysogyny has the same characteristics everywhere in the world. I read part of this book and that part seemed to me to be overambitious and faulty in its conception.

The problem of violence against women doesn’t appear to me to be the same in, say, Pakistan, as it is in, say, Australia. These are two different nations with completely different histories and different institutions; institutions such as the education system, the legal system, the religion (Australia has no official religion even though Islam is practiced here), and defacto institutions such as the customs that regulate the ways that marriages are organised and those that regulate relations between young people. To presume that you can find common themes if you study cases that take place in one or the other of these countries is to place a huge burden on the reader. It is to treat the reader as someone who is credulous.

The problems with this book don’t stop there. Leser turns to the historical record to find some sort of cause that has made men today behave in such despicable ways toward women. He stumbles upon what seems to be a promising theme – that the notions of desire and hatred are closely linked, for men – but doesn’t take it much further than to merely make a note of it. Instead of looking at the physical and psychological determinants for men’s often despicable behaviour, he then makes much of old Biblical precedents for the treatment of women as second-class citizens. There are more quotes from the Old Testament in the first chapter of this book than in a news story about Israel Folau.

The problem with this approach is that it seems to have no justifiable applicability. If you grow up in a Chaldean Catholic family in Sydney’s west and you go to church every Sunday and read the Bible and follow the guidance of your priest and of your elders, then it makes sense for a journalist to take into consideration, if you are abusive toward your wife or girlfriend, what Leviticus says about women, or what Saint Augustine says. For his part Leser seems, to me, to be a pretty typical middle-class Aussie boy who grew up listening to Supertramp and Frank Zappa. He, like me, and like the overwhelming majority of men in the country who are of an age at which they can still be considered a threat to women, is about as likely to have read the Bible as he is to have read the entire output of a popular (in the 19th century) novelist such as William Thackeray or George Eliot. Less likely, in fact.

The post-war counterculture swept away in a generation most of the remaining vestiges of organised religion for the majority of Australians, leaving, in its place, modern-day prophets such as John Lennon and Bob Dylan. You can’t lionise poor, murdered Lennon and give Dylan a Nobel Prize in Literature and then turn around and say, in a book like this, “What they wrote makes no material difference to the people who consumed their cultural products. Check out Leviticus!” What kind of relationship does Leser think the Old Testament has to contemporary Australian mainstream culture, a culture that permitted one young man to deface Euridyce Dixon’s memorial in a Melbourne park? To assert, as Leser does, that someone like myself had been – in any way, shape or form – influenced in my thinking by what is in the Old Testament is to commit a solecism of the most flagrant nature.

These two major methodological problems are evident in the parts of the book I read. If the author had got these things so wrong, I thought to myself as I was closing it and putting it down on my coffee table, what other bizarre notions was he going to serve up? There are simply no words to adequately describe the feeling of boredom that invaded me when I had finished Leser’s foolish survey of the Bible.

Now, I am not a big fan of academic writing. In my experience, much of it is incomprehensible to the layman. But what Leser’s book needed was a bit of rigour in the thinking used to form it, even to come up with the list of topics it should deal with. I can understand a publisher like Allen & Unwin wanting a commercial success because they do some good things in the area of fiction publishing. You need reliable titles in order to allow you to publish books that are challenging and difficult, and this company does bring out some good books. But it is beyond understanding if no-one in the editorial department at the company said, quietly, to Leser, one day, “David, do you really think this stuff about Leviticus is relevant for your readership?”

This one of a number of books by feature writers I’ve reviewed in recent months. Another is ‘Fake’ by Stephanie Wood (reviewed here on 2 August), and the same problems that I found with Leser’s book apply in that one as well. There is an assumption that the same way of thinking that had resulted in a successful feature article would also work for a book. And there was similarly sloppy thinking and an identical belief that gender identity is determined to a degree by external influences, in Wood’s case things her mother had said to her when she was young.

I’ve seen a number of reviews about Leser’s book and I also saw it discussed on TV, on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s ‘The Drum’ panel show. When women talk about this book they seem to be concerned with the very fact of the book itself. How appropriate is it for a man to be writing a book like this? This seems to me to be unnecessary. The bigger issue appears to me to be the belief that just saying something – for example, writing in holy scripture that women are inferior to men – actually makes much difference to people’s conduct. It won't unless it answers an existing need or else confirms an existing bias. Or unless it responds to something innate to the species, like xenophobia.

A text can embody values without necessarily promoting behaviour that sustains or encourages their adoption. I am sure that Leser takes a look at this sort of thing in his book and I would probably have benefited by learning something if I had persevered with it. The reservation I express is a complex point to get your thinking gear around but it is one that seems to be misunderstood by a large part of the community. What I’m talking about it the kind of thinking that made Evangelicals in the 19th century try to coerce novelists to write “improving” works of fiction, and that led the Nazis in the 1930s to burn books. It’s simply wrongheaded.

In my mind, a far more important aspect of the question is the way that biology operates on the minds of men. Men are more violent than women and they have been bred to be so, so it is hardly surprising that they use violence to get what they want. Even if you socialise men differently – by raising them to be as concerned about the wellbeing of the collective as they are about themselves – you will still find men conducting themselves differently from women.

I’ve sat on the review you are reading for months thinking about what to do. Should I give a negative review or should I say nothing? I finally decided to go ahead and publish. There are many good books of journalism available that are solid on the basis of the information as well as on the basis of style. Leser’s work seems to me to be weak in terms of content and the style strikes me as being unsuitable for a book, but if you’re looking for good journalism at book length, then try Chloe Hooper’s 2018 work of creative nonfiction, ‘The Arsonist’

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