What happens to a novel before and after #metoo? Nina Leger explores the impact the movement had on her novel’s reception – and how, as a writer, she aims to ‘invert the gaze’ from male to female
1 – The novel
The novel first, my second novel. I wrote it in 2015. It was published in January 2017 by Gallimard under the title Mise en pièces. It is about a woman, Jeanne, who meets men, takes them to hotels, sleeps with them and retains only the memory of their penises.
We don’t know anything else about her motives. The reader learns nothing else about her life. I excluded any element which could have been read as an explanation for her sexual attitude.
When it comes to women’s sexuality, explanation is often the first step towards disempowerment: to explain a woman’s sexuality is to say that what she does is not her choice, that it is only an effect resulting from causes which can be found elsewhere in the order of their existence.
In the explicative regime which has prevailed since the 19th century, Jeanne would be described as a nymphomaniac. Yet, to call someone a nymphomaniac is not simply a way to describe someone’s way of life, but to identify an excess with reference to a norm (which was fixed by who?), a pathology of which the cause has to be identified and treated. Nymphomania is just one extreme part of a discursive system in which explanation is a tool of judgement and condemnation.
I conceived of Jeanne to show the falsity of this demon of explanation which seizes us when we talk of female sexuality. I wanted to endow her with a double liberty: to be a woman who takes as much as is taken; and to act without having to justify anything, not even to the reader.
2 – The movement
In October 2017, the Harvey Weinstein affair broke and the hashtag #metoo spread across social media.
In January 2018, one year exactly after the publication of Mise en pièces, women in France were speaking up, they were denouncing the banality of sexual harassment and published their accusations of sexual assaults under the hashtag #balancetonporc. No sooner had we explained the term ‘rape culture’, than other voices rose to complain, in a very French way, that ‘we can’t say anything anymore, we can’t do anything anymore’, and to defend ‘French gallantry’ as a national treasure, an inalienable cultural product. The open letter published in January 2018 by around 100 women – among them writers, actors, psychoanalysts, intellectuals, etc – is an example of this discourse. Together they denounced #metoo as the reactionary vehicle of a new puritanism, a danger born ‘of the hatred of men and sexuality’ – nothing less. To save us from these dangers, they defended the ‘freedom to bother’ (‘liberté d’importuner’), that they claimed was a part of sexual freedom.
What seems to me the most unsupportable in this open letter is not even the defence of pickup culture, as annoying as that may be, but the assumption – never questioned, never explicitly stated in the letter – that the current allocation of gender roles is unshakeable.
If there were indeed a ‘freedom to bother’, it would be for men to bother women, and for women, to be bothered (a strange freedom). The article froze the sexual roles: man as predator, woman as prey, man proposing, woman consenting, with no possible variation of roles. It is this essentialism which, in my view, constitutes true reactionism.*
3 – The novel before, the novel after
I am often asked what would have happened if Mise en pièces had been published in January 2018 and not 2017. I am often asked what the reception would have been if it had been contemporaneous with #metoo.
In one sense, Mise en pièces has nothing to do with the movement of women speaking up. Mise en pièces does not denounce, its initial intention was not political, it is not a manifesto, and neither is it a testimony. Mise en pièces is a story which frustrates the existing, too familiar discourses by inverting the sexual event on which they are based.
What would happen if, in a novel, a woman became a subject instead of a sexual object? What would happen if she was given the freedom to act without explanation, accorded the independence and power of action reserved for men for so long?
What would happen if this woman-as-subject becomes an observer? In other words, what would happen if the body of a woman is no longer placed under watch, but turns watcher; if her body is never seen, never described, never given to the reader, and only the body of men, the nudity of men, is made visible? What would happen if we supplanted the male gaze with a female gaze?**
It is there, in this inversion, in this re-claiming of the right to observation and freedom that Mise en pièces is related to #metoo. The novel is concerned with the inversion of the gaze, the symmetrisation that the open letter in Le Monde on the ‘freedom to bother’ can not conceive of: that a woman can take just as much as she can consent to be taken, that a woman can observe as much as present herself as an object of observation.
Now, Mise en pièces has been translated into English and will soon be published under the title The Collection. As the #metoo movement continues, the novel’s effect is extended into the time which we may refer to as the post-#metoo era. The reception of the book will necessarily be changed by this, because we don’t read in the same way before and after.
In October 2017, a text shocked the French circles of ‘we can’t say anything anymore, we can’t do anything anymore’: an open letter that Laure Murat, a professor at UCLA, published in Libération on the subject of the film Blow Up by Michelangelo Antonioni. She recounts how, rediscovering the film during the Weinstein affair, she saw it differently: 25 years ago, she had only seen the beauty of the film, but now the violence against the female characters leaped out before her eyes. Bit by bit, this had become unacceptable, said Murat. Many cried of revisionism and of censorship. Unjustly.*** Laure Murat said nothing but the obvious: our view of art changes, evolves, it is a living thing. Only in this way do works of art come to live. Re-reading doesn’t signify the transformation of what was. It signifies the taking into account of the moment where the reception itself transformed.
Mise en pièces was a pre-#metoo novel, The Collection will be a post-#metoo novel. Its reception will necessarily be transformed by the movement – the exchanges that I have had with readers have proven this already. Nothing is more fascinating to me than to observe that a text doesn’t become its final version, with its final meaning, at the date of publication. On the contrary, it is only another beginning.
* #metoo and this open letter also produced texts of rare intelligence. I am thinking particularly of those that the Réjane Sénac published in Le Nouveau magazine littéraire the day after the open letter appeared in Le Monde (« Ne nous libérez pas, l’égalité va s’en charger ») and of the superb column by Paul B. Preciado in Libération, « Lettre d’un homme trans à l’ancien régime sexuel ».
** Even if the concept of the male gaze was created by Laura Mulvey in the context of film studies, it applies perfectly to literature, too, where point of view and identification of the reader function with such power.
*** In effect, is the earthquake created by the Weinstein affair and its cascade of consequences not the unexpected, and necessary, opportunity to reread the history of art, of cinema and of literature? This emotive project has nothing to do with the ‘moralization’ of art and less still with censorship – that is the work of totalitarian regimes – but everything to do with the deep analysis of the history of representation.’ – Laure Murat.
Nina Leger was born in 1988 in Antibes. Her first novel, Histoire naturelle, was published in 2014. Mise en pièces her second novel, won the Anaïs Nin Prize. It is forthcoming in English as The Collection (Granta, August 2019) translated from the French by Laura Francis.
This text was translated by Peter Ballett. Photo credit: Francesca Mantovani for Gallimard