Imagine a world in which all the men disappear from the planet in a single moment: Planes they were piloting are left unmanned (literally), their female passengers abandoned in midair; men in bed with their girlfriends mysteriously vanish; boys in the playground dematerialize before their mothers’ eyes. The girls and women left behind are given no apparent reason for the sudden absence of half the world’s population.
Now imagine another world — one in which an author proudly announces her forthcoming novel only to be attacked online for its fantastical premise. Months before the book comes out, it is described on Goodreads as a “transphobic, racist, ableist, misogynist nightmare of a book.” On Twitter, people who have yet to read the novel declare that it’s their responsibility to “deplatform” it. When one of the author’s friends, herself a writer, defends the book, she is similarly attacked, and a prominent literary organization withdraws her nomination for a prize for her own book.
Only one of these nightmare scenarios is real.
The first describes the premise of a novel that comes out this week: “The Men” by Sandra Newman. The second is what actually happened when the premise of Newman’s book was revealed.
“The Men” is hardly the first novel to imagine a world populated solely by women. It was inspired by feminist utopian fiction like Joanna Russ’s 1975 book, “The Female Man,” and “Herland,” a 1915 novel by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, both of which explore this theme. More recently, fiction has turned to dystopian versions of a world without men, with novels such as last year’s “The End of Men” by Christina Sweeney-Baird, in which a virus is responsible for wiping out half the population.
For all the outlandishness of its conceits, science fiction can allow writers and readers access to deeper truths about very real aspects of society, politics and power in creative ways. But apparently Newman got too creative — or too real — for some. That a fictional world would assert the salience of biological sex, however fanciful the context, was enough to upset a vocal number of transgender activists online. They would argue that “men” is a cultural category to which anyone can choose to belong, as opposed to “maleness,” which is defined by genetics and biology.
In this case, we can set aside contentious questions around gender identity and transgender politics. Even if you don’t believe the sex binary is as fundamental to human beings as it is to all other mammals, a fiction writer ought to be free to imagine her own universe, whether as utopian ideal, dystopian horror or some complicated vision in between.
Should the reader dare enter the fictional universe of “The Men,” one thing becomes immediately clear: This is in no way a transphobic novel. It neither denies the existence of transgender people, who are woven into the narrative in several places, nor maligns them. The world Newman creates is as scrupulously diverse as a Marvel franchise movie, populated by gay, lesbian and bisexual characters as well as by straight ones of various ethnicities.
In this fictional world, where the presence of a Y-chromosome dictates who disappears, a strictly biological definition of “man” is viewed as a moral wrong. The main characters are horrified by the fate of the transgender women who get swept up (“unjustly condemned”) and sympathetic to the plight of the transgender men who remain (one character is “paralyzed by the idea that transgender people were still here”).
But even if Newman’s novel had “erased” transgender people, it doesn’t deserve to be denounced outright. Fiction wasn’t meant to be run through some kind of moral purity test.
“There seems to be a misunderstanding of what fiction or literature is for,” Lauren Hough said in a phone interview. Hough — for those who didn’t brave the tempest over “The Men” on Twitter — is the author of “Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing,” a memoir whose Lambda Prize nomination was rescinded when she forcefully defended Newman’s novel on Twitter. “People seem to want books to be good or evil, rather than exploring a question. Now no one can play this thought experiment again.”
Yet Hough, whose memoir details the author’s experience growing up in a sex cult and her subjection to abuse, rape and homophobia, has no regrets about stepping into the fray. “This happened in the literary world,” she said. “If you’re not going to defend literature, then what’s the point?”
What a sour irony that a dystopian fantasy brought a dark reality one step closer. In this frightful new world, books are maligned in hasty tweets, without even having been read, because of perceived thought crimes on the part of the author. Small but determined interest groups can gather gale force online and unleash scurrilous attacks on ideas they disapprove of or fear, and condemn as too dangerous even to explore.
“I wanted to create a parable of exclusion,” Newman, who describes herself as nonbinary, said in a phone interview. “It’s a book about ‘othering,’ the human tendency to divide people into categories or groups and to think of our group as the real people and other groups as threats to the real people.”
Newman said she tends to favor fiction that explores difficult ideas in bold ways: “People shouldn’t always write nice books.” Where better than literature to examine ideas that may unsettle or challenge?
Most people don’t want to live in a world in which books are vilified without being read and their authors attacked ad hominem for the temerity of having written them.
There’s an answer to attacks like these: Read the book.