Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

James Martel reviews Masculinity and the Trials of Modern Fiction

Marco Wan. Masculinity and the Trials of Modern Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2017. 177 pp.

Review by James Martel

Masculinity and the Trials of Modern Fiction gives us a fascinating glimpse of the way that law is always covering itself, shifting as necessary to ensure that law itself is what wins in the end. Wan offers us a reading of a number of obscenity trials about certain (generally very well known) books in England and France over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These trials, Wan argues, reveal a tremendous anxiety about masculinity, sexuality, and the social order. The law here had a job to do; it ensured that normativity was upheld and that law itself was accorded the right to determine what was proper and what was a threat to the social order under its authority.

Perhaps the two most interesting trials that Wan covers are the last two in the book: the trials of Oscar Wilde and Radclyffe Hall. As Wan tells it, these two defendants could not be more opposite. Wilde’s defense was based entirely on aesthetics. He refused to concede that his work was realist and that the homoeroticism found in the pages of his writings corresponded to a real queer sexuality (Wilde’s own) in the world. Wilde brilliantly batted aside the claims by his prosecutor Edward Carson that he (Carson) had an authoritative reading of the text and that the text was, like the law itself, available for legal readings (in the end Wilde won the hermeneutic argument but was damned by physical evidence of his queer life).

Radclyffe Hall had an entirely different approach. As Wan tells it, she made a bold play for heteronormativity. Her book The Well of Loneliness depicted lesbian relationships as being thoroughly (and normatively) gendered. Hall’s downfall was to have the audacity to suggest that a lesbian relationship could actual be superior to (more normative than) a heterosexual one. This, the law could not allow.

In all of these trials, what was at issue was a battle over intertextuality, over what other kinds of texts could be compared to the works in question. The arguments were over whether these texts were works of science, ethics or moralism, or pornography. The battles were also concerned with new genres such as realism (which was detested by its critics for being too harsh and sordid) and whether or not they constituted legitimate and socially salutary modes of representation.

In each case the law insisted that its reading was correct, that the text meant this and not that; in this way, it insisted on a legal hermeneutics over and above other ways of reading. At issue was masculinity, yes, but perhaps even more so the power of law to determine, to read, to decide. Wan beautifully crafts these chapters so that the question of reading and interpretation becomes preeminent. As he sets up several trials in a row, we see a pattern that might not be clear in any one of the trials alone.

Perhaps most fascinating and critical is the way that Wan shows how the legal argument is always ready to shift and concede, to do whatever it takes to remain the authorized reader of texts. Thus, sometimes the law opposes realism; other times (as with Wilde) it promotes a realistic reading as a way to damn the author. Sometimes, the law reads a text literally (again as with Wilde) whereas other times it engages in metaphysical speculation (as when it preached morality to Émile Zola). One gets the impression here—and I think this is Wan’s key insight—that the law is ultimately indifferent to the mode of its argument as long as its authority and power, especially its interpretive authority, are recognized and respected. Another way to say this is that while masculinity appears as a transitive attribute (one that Hall made a strong but failed play for), its clearest and purest form is the law itself. Perhaps more accurately, the relationship between law and masculinity is so tightly entangled that it is functionally difficult to distinguish between them. Wan speaks of an “alliance between law and normative masculinity” (p. 15). This connection between masculinity and law is what is ultimately in question and what is being defended at any cost against an array of imagined adversaries.