But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen?
This volume by Anthony Burgess consists of very nearly two hundred short essays, or short reviews of other writers’ books, published in several journals (notably the Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times, and the Observer) over a period of some seven years. Naturally, the main impression they make is of variety. Subjects often repeated include the problems of biography, attitudes toward religion, the utility of dictionaries, and the relation between literature and popular fiction, but a reader dipping into the volume at random may find himself faced with thoughts on Canada, on syphilis, on dialectology, or any one of literally scores of apparently unrelated topics. What, one must ask, is the point of producing such a volume? What also is the point of reading it—for in doing so, one is reading collectively works meant to be read singly and thus going against the author’s prime intention at the moment of composition.
To the first question Burgess himself gives a kind of answer, which is self-justification, or as he puts it, “writer’s guilt.” Writers are supposed to be lazy, he points out. People think that he is lazy. This book proves that even between novels he has been doing something. Beneath this reason, one feels, there lies a less cynical one, which is (as Burgess also points out) that writing a short essay to a set length on a topic set by someone else, such as a literary editor, is a form of discipline. It makes the writer subordinate his personality to a clear task, and it tells him virtually immediately whether he has succeeded or failed. Discipline is a quality by which Burgess sets great store, and this collection can be seen, in a way, as a sort of “sonnet-cycle”—a sequence of works each of them within clear and unalterable formal bounds. As with a sonnet-cycle, too, the reader has the option of reading singly or collectively. To read one or two sonnets or essays is normal and legitimate; to read many together creates a different experience, predominantly that of recognizing emotional or thematic unity beneath apparent diversity. This latter point is perhaps the strongest reason for considering Burgess’ pieces together.
As the volume’s title suggests, one of Burgess’ continuing preoccupations is male-female relations and the developing theory of feminism. His attitude is, to say the least, a thoroughly old-fashioned one. Few modern thinkers, male or female, would, for example, agree with his declaration that for him to offer his seat to a woman on a bus or the tube train is a reaction “wholly biological in origin,” which he should not apologize for because it is “built into my glands.” His reaction, as many would point out to him, cannot be biological because, if it were, most other men would share it, which they very clearly do not. Burgess’ is in fact a cultural reaction, which may indeed be unalterable but nevertheless was learned. It is clear that Burgess means no harm by his courtesy. Still, courtesy clearly if benevolently implies that a woman is not a man’s equal but needs to be cared for. Burgess titles his opening article “Grunts from a Sexist Pig”: he means it ironically, but there can be little doubt that “sexist” is what he indeed is.
What, however, does “sexist” mean? This is exactly the kind of question that fascinates Burgess, and one on which he has strong views. The latest definition of sexist, given by the Oxford English Dictionary Supplement, volume 4 (1986), is “one who advocates sexism,” while sexism itself is defined as “the assumption that one sex is superior to the other” and, further, “conformity with the traditional stereotyping of social roles on the basis of sex”—as, for example, deciding who should stand or sit. The dictionary seems to have defined a broad attitude both precisely and fairly. Against that, Burgess believes that in many mouths sexist has become a meaningless insult directed against a nonmember of one’s own faction, as with so many political terms, one being the term “fascist.” He may, then, be a sexist in the dictionary sense of the term, but not in the factionalist sense. The underlying question is whether the meaning of a word is conferred by authority or by usage or, to put it another way—since even the authority of the Oxford English Dictionary rests entirely on the codification of past usage—whether words are allowed to change their meaning. Here Burgess betrays interesting ambivalence.
To begin with, Burgess is well aware that the meaning of a word always changes, as does its form and pronunciation. In one of his most interesting pieces, “Firetalk,” which deals with the problems Burgess...
(The entire section is 1932 words.)