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Les Liaisons Dangereuses

THE KISS.\o7 By Kathryn Harrison\f7 .\o7 Random House: 214 pp., $20\f7

May 11, 1997|SUSIE LINFIELD | Susie Linfield teaches cultural reporting and criticism at New York University's department of journalism

Every now and then a book comes along that disturbs, disrupts and polarizes the public in new ways. Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" was such a book, as was Hannah Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem," William Styron's "The Confessions of Nat Turner," Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" and Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein's "The Bell Curve." (This used to happen with films, too--"Bonnie and Clyde," "Last Tango in Paris," "Shoah"--but that, alas, seems to be a thing of the past.) In such cases, it is not just the work itself but the author too--and, in particular, his motives, integrity and moral vision--that are scrutinized and interrogated. The debates over such books can turn highly unpleasant, yet they are, generally speaking, a good thing, for they force readers and critics to confront their most cherished ideas and even, sometimes, develop new ones.

Kathryn Harrison's "The Kiss," a memoir of her incestuous relationship with her father, is the latest, and perhaps the best, example of such a polarizing work. To call it controversial would be a laughable understatement; it has been the object of almost apoplectic fury. The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley, who is one of the country's most prominent book critics, has written three vitriolic pieces on "The Kiss," calling it "slimy," "repellent," "revolting" and "shameful"; Liz Smith, who is one of the country's most prominent gossip columnists, has also weighed in with a somewhat more concise, if no more restrained, "Yuck!"

Between Yardley and Smith, a wide range of critics (often, though not always, male) has damned the book, while several, such as novelists Francine Prose and Susan Cheever, have praised it. Harrison has been accused of dishonesty, opportunism, careerism, greed, exhibitionism, narcissism, selfishness, coyness, self-plagiarism and--the ultimate insult--bad mothering. (In olden days, one suspects, she would have simply been called a whore and a witch and promptly dispatched to the nunnery or the stake. Apparently, though, such words--and such solutions--are no longer feasible.)

Harrison's harshest critics--who have included Michael Shnayerson in Vanity Fair and James Wolcott in the New Republic--almost always cite her book as an example of the tacky, tell-all, television-based culture that, they fear, is engulfing us. A "growing number" of women memoirists, Shnayerson warned, are "baring the kind of behavior once kept secret even from close girlfriends"; even the best are "as of-the-moment as this afternoon's 'Oprah.' " But the question of how much women should tell about their emotional and sexual experiences--and of the appropriately Olympian tone to use when they do--is only tangentially related to the emergence of talk shows or tabloids; such questions are, in fact, far older--and more volatile.

Charlotte Bronte, for instance, was criticized for the unseemly, revelatory emotion of her work. As the literary scholar Carolyn G. Heilbrun noted almost a decade ago, "When Matthew Arnold disliked 'Villette' because it was so full of hunger, rebellion, rage, he was at the same time identifying its strengths, but these were unbearably presumptuous in a woman writer." And although now generally respected as part of the canon, the work of such poets as Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton was often regarded as too confessional, too personal, too angry, too sexy and too disgusting when it first appeared. (And a poem like Plath's "Daddy" is still a shocker, even today.) Doris Lessing advised Kate Millett that "you cannot be intimidated into silence" when writing about the sexual truth of your life, but few writers are as sensibly courageous as Doris Lessing. The irony, of course, is that it is precisely when women reveal their most intimate experiences that they risk being viewed as unfeminine:

". . . consider the fate of women / How unwomanly to discuss it!" the poet Carolyn Kizer wrote. So when Wall Street Journal critic Cynthia Crossen admonished Harrison to "hush up," she was hardly suggesting something new. Crossen, Shnayerson, Wolcott, Yardley, et al. have simply taken the well-worn, if not quite venerable, demand that women writers be decent, tactful, dignified, protective and discreet--that is, silent, secretive, deceptive, frightened and reassuring--and put a modern, mediaphobic spin on it.

Still, the fact that some very good books (and poems) have been attacked for the same reasons--although, I suspect, with less venom--as "The Kiss" does not make "The Kiss" a very good book. What makes "The Kiss" a very good book is the spare lyricism of its prose, the emotional authenticity of its narrator, its unblinking look at some horrible (but not, I would argue, inhuman) things and the undeniably fascinating story it tells. Reading it, however, is neither easy nor pleasant; its harshness makes you recoil even as its vortex of emotions draws you in. It is an ugly tale, beautifully told.

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