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Simcha Fisher on whether teenage girls should read Walker Percy

Simcha Fisher, blogging at The National Catholic Register, offers up some musings on teenage girls and their reading habits:

I’ve made sure that my own daughters would rather eat Vaseline than read a Twilight book (snobbery has its benefits). But as a dopey and malleable teenage girl, I came across lots of literature which had a horrible effect on my ideas of love — but which were terrific books.

She cites a few examples including:

Pretty much everything by Walker Percy. These books weren’t above my reading comprehension, and were incredibly nourishing to my ideas about humility, repentance, and courage, and the modern novel in general. But they were just above my emotional comprehension (and I worry a bit about Percy’s own emotional comprehension of women). The romantic escapades of Dr. Thomas More are his tragic flaw, and a symptom of his deeper, similarly flawed relationship with Christ, which comes in cycles of ecstatic lust and regret. But a teenager will likely take any likable character as a role model, ignoring or normalizing the misery and distress that the character suffers.

She goes on to say what we all know — that we can’t shield our children “from every malign influence.” We can try, but we will inevitably fuck it up. (My words, not Simcha’s, with a nod to Philip Larkin.) The best we can do is try to steer our kids towards the good, and towards a variety of material … and talk with them about what they’re reading and perceiving and experiencing, and above all pray for them.

As to the Percy question, I’ve sometimes worried about my own “emotional comprehension of women” — and reading Percy’s novels over and over over the years may not have helped me out much on that score. I’m just not sure.

What teenagers should be exposed to in literature and film and art is a tricky question. I’m having enough trouble sorting out where to draw the line in the case of my 8-year-old and her desire to immerse herself in Monster High. My fallback plan is to move us to a sparsely populated island such as this one or to Cubeland Mystic’s compound in the desert.

God help us! Walker Percy pray for us!


  1. Matthew Lickona says

    Well, she’s right, of course. I read Love in the Ruins as a freshman in college, and while I didn’t think More was a character to emulate, it was hard not to take a wry delight in the problem of having too many women. And Percy’s women are, I agree, problematic. Even Alison, his most delightful creation, is more of a linguistic thought experiment than a character. *Puts down opened can of worms, backs away slowly.* It’s almost enough to start one pondering a memoir that simultaneously explores an author’s relationships with women as a way of getting at the generally thorny problem of sexuality…

  2. Cubeland Mystic says

    “The romantic escapades of Dr. Thomas More are his tragic flaw, and a symptom of his deeper, similarly flawed relationship with Christ, which comes in cycles of ecstatic lust and regret.”

    Pretty much describes the emotional range of Catholic men.

    My compound is cloistered just outside of a great desert necropolis. I walk unseen through its streets filled with the living dead. I am invisible to them. If you come give me warning, and I will provide safe passage for you and your little ones.

  3. Jonathan Webb says

    And looking very relaxed, Adolf Hitler on vibes:

  4. Hey, my sister went to that island on her honeymoon!

    And to open another can of worms, I’m willing to argue that Stephenie Meyer has better emotional comprehension of women than Percy. Of course, tomorrow’s Thanksgiving, and I’m going to bed in five minutes–so I guess I’m just going to throw that statement out there and leave it dangling.

    I did wonder if Korrektiv would pick up Simcha’s article–and I’m glad to see Potter on it. Though there are so many, many ways that teenage girls get weird in the head–I’d bet my life that books are the least danger.

  5. I’m in a terrible mood and deeply cynical about A. GoDaddy and B. humanity, so:

    1. As a woman, am I supposed to automatically care about Walker Percy’s portrayal of women? Do people write about how an author portrays men in the same way as they do this topic? Most of the time, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass. And I do tend to give those as stocking stuffers.

    2. I have come to believe that for the majority of teenagers the only point in having them read good books is so that they’ll vaguely remember having done so when they’re old enough to actually understand them.

    3. I don’t think I’d recommend a Percy book to most teenagers, but then I have a hard time recommending him to my friends, DESPITE my complete devotion to him and belief that he communicates with me from beyond the grave. I just think most people don’t get what he’s doing.

    I did, however, read The Thanatos Syndrome as a teenager, but I think what I liked about it was that it was a pro-life novel that was also a decently written book. Now I feel like it’s one of his weaker novels because he’s painting with broader strokes, but at the time – that was what I liked.

  6. Cubeland Mystic says

    Hi Expat

    Don’t be grumpy.

  7. Southern Expat says

    I know. That was terribly harsh. I feel bad. I came back just to make amends.

  8. Jonathan Webb says

    Being ethnically Jewish, I get a lot of people asking me how I feel about issues related to Israel. I get a little offended.

    • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

      Being a half-Vietnamese Catholic, I get a lot of Catholics assuming I inherited the Faith from stalwart Vietnamese ancestors who confessed Christ in spite of dungeon, fire, and sword. When actually, my ancestors were the ultra-Confucian xenophobes who built the dungeon, lit the fire, and wielded the sword. It makes the Feast of Saint Andrew Dũng Lạc a little awkward, but also a little thrilling.

      And on the other side of it, my first European ancestors in the New World included Huguenots who fled France to escape persecution BY Catholics.

      Sorry, what were we talking about?

      • Women.

        • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

          I hear ya, brother. Not sure what prompted that, but I hear ya. Even so: Can’t live without ’em. But you know that already, or else you’ll soon be reminded of the fact.

          I still can’t remember what we were talking about. Must not have been that important.

  9. Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

    I’m catching up on cyberspace, having spent Thanksgiving in meatspace.

    By some coincidence, Mr Potter’s link to Ms Fisher’s article went up right around the time I made it to p. 170 of The Last Gentleman. That’s where Bill overhears a bit of girl talk in which Kitty tells Rita:

    ‘I want to be an ordinary silly girl who has dates and goes to dances. […] I mean dancing cheek to cheek. I want to be broken in on. […] I want to have beaus. […] I want to be Tri Delt. […] I want to buy new textbooks […] and hold my books in my arms and walk across the campus. And wear a sweater.’

    On first reading, I thought the good Doctor had probably intended to draw a portrait here, and instead had ended up with a pretty bad caricature.

    I’ll hold off judgment till novel’s end. Just t’rowing this out there in the meantime.

    • Well, but once you find out Kitty is really a secret agent from a radical Basque separatist movement, you see that’s just part of her cover…oh, sorry, didn’t realize you haven’t finished the book.

      • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

        The cover art, with the eyeball in the telescope, could actually work for a Day-of-the-Jackal type thriller!

    • It’s Percy’s feminine version of a man getting through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon. One of the difficulties of writing a diagnostic novel is that you have to people it with other…people. It’s okay, though.

      • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

        Yeah, on second thought, I realized that Percy might as easily have written of Binx, or of himself, ‘I want to drink beer and suck crawfish heads. I want to sit in Waffle House and listen to the whoosh of the Interstate traffic. I want to buy new textbooks and walk across campus. And wear a tweed jacket.’

        Anyhow, Will is now prowling around the attic of the Vaughts’ country-club ‘castle’. Time to stop writing and resume reading.

  10. Next: a post on Kierkegaard and women.

    I love SK, but it’s gonna make Percy look like Oprah.

  11. Fellow Traveler says

    I don’t have nearly as many problems with Percy’s depiction of women as I do with his depiction of men and their relation to women.

    For this reason I’ve had regrets about recommending him to most of the male acquaintances to whom I have lent out my (seldom returned) copies of The Moviegoer.

    Percy is safer for women to read than he is for men.

    And to the Ironic Catholic: I would read that post.

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