Fifty years from now, future historians attempting to understand the Me Too movement will pore over the legal documents from the Weinstein case; call up video of Christine Blasey Ford’s statements at the Kavanaugh hearing; ponder pictures of women in pussy hats and of tennis balls stuck to the feet of walkers; analyze the press coverage of high-profile cases of rape, assault, and sexual exploitation in the film and theater industries, as well as publishing, academia, government, and many other professions; and sift through the mass of online evidence around it all—the hundreds of low-profile stories of men abusing their positions of power over women, and sometimes over other men, that never get as far as the courts or the newspapers. Faced with this mountain of sources, they may well choose to relegate the evidence of contemporary Me Too novels and stories to a footnote. After all, it’s only fiction.
What can fiction contribute to any social reckoning that may emerge from this moment? It is a live question. Discussing her recent novella This Is Pleasure, about a powerful New York editor who is accused of multiple sexualized power games with his subordinates, Mary Gaitskill explained that the fictional mode was central to her treatment of the subject:
It was the only way that I could imagine addressing it. The essay form is best for making an argument that is more or less rational, and my feelings on the subject are too complicated and contradictory for that.
She was arguing in favor of the kinds of insight that can emerge from fiction, with its tension between inner monologue and exterior drama, which can help us understand the complex dynamics of social situations and the hidden frailties or cruelties of other people. Storytelling can put flesh onto the bald statements about fact, motive, and intention that are the materials of a court of law. The narrative of Gaitskill’s novella is split between two voices: Quin, the guy whose history of overly intimate encounters with young staffers has caught up with him; and Margot, his old friend and colleague, who defends him despite her feelings of anger. Both of them are what we might once have called “rounded” characters; both of them unpack Quin’s queasy history and both are compromised by failures of empathy and understanding, as rounded characters are. Margot, for example, who once fended off Quin’s grab at her crotch, simply can’t understand why his young female accusers didn’t just say No.
It’s an absorbing piece of fiction, and it has been praised for its “admirable interest in complication,” as compared to “simple” victim stories. But it doesn’t manage to save us from the tyranny of individual testimony as a means of addressing the issues. The question of the truth (Was it really…
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