When Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers was published last month, it garnered almost universal acclaim. Indeed, this reviewer would go so far to say that it’s already one of the best books of the year. It’s vivid and skillful and important, a thrill to read, a firestorm. Adam Kirsch, a contributing editor for Tablet magazine, did not enjoy The Flamethrowers. That’s his prerogative, of course. But he thinks everyone else only liked it because Kushner’s a woman.
Kirsch begins his review of the book – subtitled “Rachel Kushner’s new novel The Flamethrowers is overly cool and stylish. So, why do the critics swoon for her?” – with a brief overview of the acclaim that has been (undeservedly, his tone assures you) heaped on Kushner and her newest novel. But Kirsch, who found the novel derivative and superficial, doesn’t understand where all this praise is coming from. In the review’s third paragraph, he creates a hypothesis: “Why, hundreds of novelists must ask themselves, does one writer become famous, when others, perhaps just as talented, remain stuck on the midlist? In Kushner’s case, I think, part of the reason has to do with a different binarism than the one Wood identified — a conflict even more intractable than the one between realists and post-realists: the gender divide in contemporary literature.” So, she’s been getting all this attention because she’s a girl – but more importantly, she’s a girl writing about man stuff.
“What makes The Flamethrowers a book for our moment is the way it implodes all the usual assumptions about what gender means in literature,” Kirsch writes. But wait – whose assumptions are these? Have these assumptions not already been imploded by Jennifer Egan, Louise Erdrich, Ellen Ullman, the original work and recent resurgence of Renata Adler, among countless others? He continue: “Are ‘women’s novels’ supposed to have robin’s-egg-blue covers and deal with domestic issues and personal relationships and offer likable protagonists?” Are we really still asking this question?
“Kushner is out to create a mystique, and her book is full of portentous atmosphere and self-conscious cool,” Kirsch writes. “In other words, The Flamethrowers manages to be a macho novel by and about women, which may explain why it has been received so enthusiastically by the critics.” Though Kirsch stops just short of spelling it out, his overall message is clear: if this book had been written by a man, it wouldn’t have gotten such good reviews. Though slightly more eloquent, it reads just like Bret Easton Ellis’s famously condemnable tweet about another successful and talented woman tackling “masculine” topics: “Kathryn Bigelow would be considered a mildly interesting filmmaker if she was a man but since she’s a very hot woman she’s really overrated.” Kirsch leaves out the comment on Kushner’s physical appearance (though he does make a leading and confusing statement about her picture appearing in Vogue early in the piece), but his sentiment is no less misguided.
Ignoring the fact that Kirsch is really saying nothing about the book that makes it sound “macho” and the bizarre accusation that Kushner is trying to be cool (which Kushner has gracefully responded to on her Facebook page), the underlying bias is – again, again! – that you can only be a writer or a female writer, and if you are the latter kind, all sorts of special filters and considerations may be applied. What’s misleading here is that Kirsch self-consciously positions his argument within the ongoing cultural conversation about women in fiction, paying lip service to Claire Messud and VIDA, before going on to plant his feet squarely on the side of the conservative, sexist old guard. Kirsch talks about “mansplaining” in the piece, almost going so far as to accuse Kushner of it — a nonsensical train of thought, especially when it’s he who is being condescending.
A final quibble: Kirsch closes his article by asserting that “a novelist should not be a mythmaker, not when one of the greatest powers of the novel is the ability to penetrate the myths we make about ourselves — to show how things really work, instead of how they claim to work.” In my mind, a good novelist is nothing but a mythmaker – and this talent doesn’t take anything away from the ability to “show how things really work.” Should all novels be a dissection of contemporary life and nothing else? Is a writer who creates a tenable, glowing, full world failing at the grand novelistic task somehow? Or is that only if she’s a woman?