→ Iryna Byelyayeva
It’s a story we know well. A bright-eyed, sexually inexperienced girl falls for a man in a position of power. She’s shy but he’s mesmerised – he’s never met a girl like her before. She loses her virginity and calls it Love. But he has a secret past, it’s only a matter of time before it comes back to haunt him. He fucks up, but he’s sorry. She’s crying, but he’s sorry. He’s fucked in the head, he can prove it – and does, tells her everything about his troubled past. It’s not him, it’s history, it’s ingrained. But he loves her and he’s sorry; he’s never met a girl like her before. Through tears she – still young and inexperienced, despite all the Love they’ve been having recently – forgives him.
It’s a story we all know well because we’ve seen countless films, sang along to countless songs, and read countless books which tell it. It’s a story we know well because we’ve seen countless women around us taken advantage of in the same way. So why do we keep telling it?
Eimear McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians (2016), is more of the same. The blurb claims this is a ‘story of love and innocence … the grip of the past and the struggle to be new again’, but should say ‘this is Fifty Shades of Grey for intellectuals’.
The Lesser Bohemians, set in 1994/5, is about Eily, an eighteen-year-old coming to London to pursue acting, but ending up chasing thirty-eight-year-old Stephen – who has a past. The novel mostly takes place in Stephen’s bed, in their embrace, and features all the classic scenes, from him coercing her into losing her virginity, to him coming inside her (and then being very sorry), to finally breaking it off with her by saying – after months of inappropriate behaviour – ‘I love you … but you’re eighteen and that’s not right’. Correct.
What is so special about The Lesser Bohemians is just how good the writing is. McBride weaves a sentence like the most revolutionary of seamstresses. This is a book for people who are captivated by visceral and tender descriptions of sexuality, who delight in exploring a character from the very inside of their being. For half the book we are right there with Eily, reliving the physical pain and emotional excitement of discovering a city and another person for the first time. It’s a beautiful demonstration of how strongly we feel when we are young, and the book would be perfect if it wasn’t for Stephen.
At the halfway point the voice changes, the focus shifts to Stephen’s backstory and, as truly horrific as it is, by this point it’s difficult to forgive him everything – Stephen is a bad man, and it doesn’t matter that he knows it. The language would have us believe we are still with Eily, that we are hearing him through her, but then she says ‘This is not my story … or time for upset’. Just like that, the man with the power takes over and commands attention on him.
In August 2017 The Lesser Bohemians won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. In October of the same year the Me Too movement, originally initiated in 2006, awoke and took hold of the internet and film industry. The irony of Eily’s troubling romance winning a literary prize the same year that women joined forces in a reckoning against sexual assault should not be lost on us. As so many people fight to hold abusers accountable and change the status quo, we need to ask: is this really the time to be publishing this book?
What role do publishers need to play in this discussion? To censor would be a huge step backwards for the publishing industry; we have a strong history of fighting censorship. But perhaps giving these stories a platform time and time again, under the guise of literary genius, is not the correct response either.
It would be naïve to think that the Me Too movement doesn’t extend to the publishing industry. In 2018 no book will be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature as the board try to find the best way to respond to allegations of sexual assault by one of the members. Female writers Zini Clemmons, Carmen Maria Machado and Monica Byrne have all recently accused Junot Díaz of sexual misconduct. Publishing is culture; the world’s greatest movements are all safeguarded in books. Gender dynamics – which make it seemingly okay for men like Stephen to hurt girls like Eily – are shifting, very very slowly, and not in every country yet, but surely. Books that win literary prizes and are given a voice should reflect this change. We are part of the conversation too. Don’t we, as publishers, have a responsibility to look at stories like The Lesser Bohemians and say ‘enough’?
The Lesser Bohemians is a complicated book with two well-rounded characters. My brief review does not do Stephen justice – by the end you really root for him to find peace, but that’s not going to come from an eighteen-year-old. McBride has been enjoying good reviews, all concentrating on her masterful writing. In the New York Times, Jeanette Winterson praises the book immensely, but also writes ‘If the writing were terrible, we’d be in “Fifty Shades” territory’. Winterson – even by pointing this out you prove that we are.
Charisma doesn’t excuse abusive behaviour, just like good writing doesn’t excuse a problematic story. McBride is a true artist, and I’m not suggesting we boycott her work. But, in the wake of Me Too, it’s time for publishers to join the conversation and take more care in the content we bring forward, otherwise we are on the wrong side of the fight.