I was a weird kid.
When I was in high school, I discovered Harold Pinter and fell in love with his plays. When I auditioned to get in to Rockford College’s theater program I did the end of “Old Times” for one of my monologues. After I did the monologue I was asked why I chose the monologue and I spoke about my love of Pinter’s writing getting under the skin before lamenting the time limit for a monologue not allowing me to really use the full potential of the pauses.
My love of Pinter has continued and the sole play I saw in 2013 was “The Birthday Party” at Steppenwolf, which I greatly enjoyed. But then it eventually came up in a conversation that I’m a woman and I enjoy Pinter.
The issue came up when I was talking with someone about what I did over Spring Break. I mentioned I saw “The Birthday Party” and enjoyed it. The woman asking me about my Spring Break activities looked up the play on Wikipedia and then said, “You shouldn’t like that play.”
“You’re a feminist. The women in this play lack agency.”
I never enjoy people applying labels to me as they tend to be incorrect, so I cringed when she said “You’re a feminist.” But to be fair, Harold Pinter is not great feminist literature. His work is, however, among the most important theatrical work of the 20th Century.
I have a history of being lectured by those in my age range for my taste in plays. I’ve even listened to a voice mail message where someone questioned me owning a copy of “The Essential Bogosian.” These are the plays I enjoy because of the writing and stories told within. Simply because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I should only like certain plays with strong feminist tones to them.
The surprising thing is I haven’t been lectured for my unabashed love of Philip Roth’s work. Roth’s work is derided often as misogynist and sexist, but he is in my opinion the greatest living American writer. It’s how the words flow when Roth writes and the characters he creates that draw me into his books, even though they might be rather piggish and, let’s face it, Alexander Portnoy was a schmuck. It is even possible for me to sometimes feel sympathy for his characters because of how Roth writes.
Among the things I learned in college is the importance to appreciate and analyze the writing of a writer rather than focusing on if you like the book or if you approve of the actions of the main characters. The actions of Alexander Portnoy and Coleman Silk aren’t ones I would engage in and I don’t condone them, but that doesn’t take away from my enjoyment. The writing of “Portnoy’s Complaint” does read like the world’s most messed up therapy session from an incredibly neurotic person and works very well on that judgement.
Occasionally I do stop and wonder, “Is it okay for me as a woman to enjoy Harold Pinter and Philip Roth’s work?” But at the end of the day, what is okay for a woman to enjoy? If a woman enjoys “Twilight,” and many women do, she’ll likely be accused of being shallow and be criticized for enjoying the books when Bella is not an interesting protagonist. If a woman enjoys a Dan Brown novel, she’s reading middlebrow thrillers. If a woman enjoys Jennifer Weiner novels, she’s stooping to “chick lit.”
The problem is there are no books or works you can openly enjoy without getting some criticism. As a friend of mine pointed out once, everything is problematic. It’s easier to prepare yourself to be criticized for liking anything in the realm of culture than to sit around and go, “Is this okay to like?”
There is nothing wrong with me liking Harold Pinter or Philip Roth’s work, even though other people might object. Just be prepared for me to launch into an analysis of his work if you ask me about Pinter.