Howard Jacobson

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The Independent Online

Woman trouble again. And not my fault this time, either. I'm standing in a quiet corner at a party, minding my own business, sipping fizzy mineral water and nicking olives - why do I always feel that party olives are not rightly mine to take, why this guilt around party olives? - when I see her heading purposefully my way, hips and shoulders rotating like an Olympic heel-and-toe walker, eyes blazing like two Olympic torches. A journalist, I won't say from which paper. A scrapper. Though why she wants to scrap with me, I can't think.

Woman trouble again. And not my fault this time, either. I'm standing in a quiet corner at a party, minding my own business, sipping fizzy mineral water and nicking olives - why do I always feel that party olives are not rightly mine to take, why this guilt around party olives? - when I see her heading purposefully my way, hips and shoulders rotating like an Olympic heel-and-toe walker, eyes blazing like two Olympic torches. A journalist, I won't say from which paper. A scrapper. Though why she wants to scrap with me, I can't think.

"You're such a sexist," she says - no preliminaries, just straightto business - "You're such a sexist, but I forgive you because you write beautifully."

What am I meant to say to that? "From a critic of language as discerning as you are known to be, I take that to be a handsome compliment indeed'? I know what I'd like to say. I'd like to say . . . but we won't go into that. I was not brought up to tell women I don't know that what they write like a dung beetle wouldn't touch.

If you are wondering why such harmless party persiflage has robbed me, temporarily, of my accustomed sense of fun, pause while I explain that the identical woman approached me in an identical fashion at an identical party the year before. Though then what she accused me of was not sexism but misogyny. "You're such a misogynist," she said - no preliminaries, just straight to business - "You're such a misogynist, but I forgive you because you write beautifully."

Regular readers of this column will acknowledge that we have dealt with misogyny over the years to the satisfaction of all but the most ideologically deranged. A man must be allowed to take a dislike to the occasional instance of woman without it being assumed that he therefore dislikes the genus. Similarly, a man must be allowed to differ from some of the statements women make about themselves and their condition, without it being assumed he wishes them in person, or their sex in general, any evil.

Of course, one of the things that happens when a woman groundlessly accuses you of being a misogynist is that you immediately, and for the duration of the encounter, become one. That's if we take a misogynist to be a person whose hair stands on end, whose eyes bulge, and whose wine becomes so agitated in his glass that most of it ends up running down his shirt. Hence the fizzy water. Not that I was in any real danger this time of turning sexist just because that was what a woman journalist had called me. I have grown wiser since last year. I know now to refuse the bait. Sexist, shmexist. Besides, the real offence lay somewhere else. Not in the accusation of hating women but in the charge (far more serious, to me) of writing beautifully.

In Enter a Fox, his latest volume of atrabilious memoirs - a book no person who considers herself intelligent should not read - the dramatist Simon Gray says, as he often does, everything that needs to be said on this subject. "Of all the compliments I've come to fear, 'beautifully written' is the one that I've come to fear most. A play shouldn't be beautifully written unless, for dramatic purposes, there is a character in it who speaks beautiful writing..."

"Beautiful" writing is not what any decent writer aspires to write, except dramatically, no, not even if he or she is Irish and means to win the Booker prize.

Nor does she or he aspire to write "like an angel" - that other asininity - not least as there is scant record of angels being able to write at all, or indeed (except when on annunciation business) manage any form of communication other than the mouthing of joyous hymnals. "If it's to be any good a play can only be truthfully written," Gray continues, and it was in that vein that I set about correcting my party combatant.

"Since falsity can never wear a fair countenance in writing," I told her, "what you chose to call beautiful is actually truth. You are so persuaded by the thing you erroneously think of as style, that you reach for the word beautifulbecause your belief system will not permit you to reach for the word true. In fact, what I have shown you by the penetration of my thinking, by the justice of my vocabulary, by the careful precision of my syntax, by the mellifluousness of my sympathies - by everything, in short, that comprises, to your sense, beauty - is that you are entirely in the wrong in what you believeand that I am entirely in the right.

"A position that I perfectly understand you may find intolerable, but that doesn't excuse your behaviour, I have to say, in barging into the little corner of quiet I was enjoying, telling me what you think of me, confusing form with meaning and, on that basis, offering some uneducated sop to what you take to be my writerly vanity, in the process standing my hairs on end, causing my eyes to bulge and otherwise reducing me to blithering inarticulacy by my own standards, though no doubt this is eloquence itself by yours."

Which should have been the end of it. But oh no. One week later comes a postcard, accusing me of smugness and contempt, aligning me with other good writers who have a "malign effect", comparing me to a peacock and wishing me a Happy New Year. So tell me - if I throw this postcard in the rubbish, does that make me a sexist?

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