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The Artistic Death as Emasculation: Gender in Everett’s Erasure Understood Through Bourdieu

By Millie Roberts

Bourdieu’sThe Field of Cultural Production, or the Economic World Reversed,outlines the social relativity of the literary field, expounding the ways its members are linked and ultimately defined by the relationships between them. The field, as defined by Bourdieu, is the realm of relations between every agent that interacts with literature, from readers, to writers, to publishers, to the books themselves, and so on (Bourdieu 30). Two important forms of capital within this field are the financial, evaluated on the scale of economic wealth, and the symbolic, evaluated on the scale of cultural prestige. What dictates these evaluations of capital is the field’s doxa, the latent principles held as unconscious truths by members of the field. The text holds many noteworthy insights into cultural production, however, it lacks nuance concerning racial and gender identity. Percival Everett’s novel, Erasure (2001), works to furnish this absence, as its narrative explicates the experiences of being a Black author within the literary field. The novel also, although less directly, depicts the field’s gender dynamics and its implications for women authors. Erasure’s main character, Monk Ellison, undergoes a crisis respecting his artistic integrity that is enmeshed in the wider literary field’s devaluation of women’s symbolic capital; as he becomes more commercialized, he becomes more emasculated. While Bourdieu did not integrate intersectionality in The Field of Cultural Production, his theories inform how identity shapes certain positions within the literary field. In the doxa of the literary field, women routinely face intellectual delegitimization, barred from the symbolic capital that their male counterparts can access. Monk is guilty of this mindset; his relationship with Juanita Mae Jenkins and her novel, We Lives in Da Ghetto is fraught with projected threats to his masculinity. Ultimately, Bourdieu’s theories regarding cultural production manifest themselves in Everett’s writing, as Monk considers his commercialization simultaneously as an artistic death and as something feminized, reproducing the pre-existing misogynistic ideals within the American literary field that invalidates the intelligence and talent of women authors.  

Erasure demonstrates an unbalanced distribution of gender-based capital within the American literary field. The National Book Award (NBA) in this narrative illuminates this issue: of the five judges, only one is a woman, and of the finalists, only one author has a recognizably feminine name. Symbolic capital, Bourdieu describes, is assigned to cultural artifacts that are “socially instituted as works of art” for their “production value” as decided by “producers of the meaning and value of the work–critics, publishers… and the whole set of agents whose combined efforts produce consumers capable of knowing and recognizing the work of art as such” (Bourdieu 37). Within the field, literary prizes hold a high degree of symbolic capital–to be a judge or finalist both requires and endows a certain degree of this capital. Exemplified in Erasure, the judges for the NBA have all won awards themselves and are thus recipients of some degree of literary prestige. The disproportionate ratios of gender, therefore, indicate that within the field, women and their work produce less symbolic capital. It follows, then, that the positions represented by those involved in the NBA reflect the field’s doxa regarding the distribution of capital. 

Whether he is conscious of it or not, Monk perpetuates this patriarchal doxa. What he calls “serious literature” (Everett 184) is solely authored by male writers, and in contrast, every woman in the literary field that Monk personally encounters is depicted negatively. He expresses admiration for male-penned novels such as Crime and Punishment (143) or Finnegan’s Wake (185), yet neither Linda Mallory nor Ailene Hoover are afforded any grace in the face of their flaws. Monk emphasizes their stereotypically feminine attributes as a decided estimation of their intellectual or literary capacity. For her unashamed interest in sex, Mallory is scathingly described as a “Rottweiler on a porkchop,” who, “before her ears perked to male attention…could be called attractive” (11). Almost as an afterthought, Monk then asserts that “she was completely without literary talent” (11). Hoover faces similar disparagement. In the one instance Monk meets Hoover in person, Monk presents her to the reader as excessively feminine, wearing “too much perfume” and embellished with a “heart-shaped pendant” (245). Once again, Monk–after degrading Hoover for her feminine characteristics goes on to insinuate her lack of intelligence, as she enters the elevator and “presses the button, though it has obviously been pressed” (245), implicitly conveying a correlation between femininity and ineptitude. Erasure proves that to be a woman within the literary field is to face a delegitimization of one’s intellect and to earn a position of lower symbolic capital due to patriarchal social structures.  

Monk’s interpretation of his female peers as symbolically deficient is embedded within a wider dichotomy of gender and commercial success. Bourdieu explains that the relationship between a piece of literature produced at the “large-scale” is often negatively attached to its symbolic capital, stating that “the field of large-scale production” is “symbolically excluded and discredited” to “exclude writers and artists who have produced for the market” (Bourdieu 39). The realm of symbolic capital rejects economically successful literature for its obedience to the financial market rather than adhering to artistic inclination. Bourdieu thus asserts two orientations to power (i.e. the market): the heteronomous, where art is considered valuable in terms of the encompassing field of power, and the autonomous, where art is produced independently of power structures. These relations of power dictate the movements available for an actor in the literary field to execute–what Bourdieu coins as their “space of possibles.” Considering that the feminine sphere has reduced access to symbolic capital, the space of possibles for female writers is more limited to the heteronomous than men, and thus a binary is established: the male/high literary/autonomous sphere, and the female/commercialized/heteronomous sphere. In Erasure, Juanita Mae Jenkins’ novel explicitly inhabits the large-scale, commercialized, heteronomous, and feminized space, as a “runaway bestseller” (Everett 39). Yet, despite being described as a “masterpiece of African American literature” (39), We Lives in Da Ghetto is not even considered for the NBA, whereas Fuck!, Monk’s novel, ultimately wins the prize. Although the latter is nearly a duplicate of the former, Jenkins, as a commercialized female writer, lacks the symbolic capital to win the award.  

The anger Monk holds for We Lives In Da Ghetto is no secret to the reader: upon reading the Atlantic Monthly’s glowing review of Jenkins’ novel, Monk is so visibly upset that the woman sitting next to him asks, “Is there something wrong?” (40). Monk’s attitude towards Jenkins’ novel is fueled largely by the novel’s overtly racist regurgitation of the stereotypical Black ‘ghetto lifestyle’ which is then essentialized as representative of all African-American life. As a novel of economic capital, however, We Lives In Da Ghetto simultaneously operates as a feminized threat for Monk, an affront to his masculine, literary identity as a highly restricted author who writes novels “too difficult for the market” (42). The emasculatory power of feminized, large-scale literature is exemplified when Monk catches a glance at a copy of We Lives in Da Ghetto while having sex with Marilyn. Instead of proceeding, he instead interrogates her about the novel. He tells Marilyn that he finds the “book an idiotic, exploitative piece of crap and [he] can’t see how an intelligent person can take it seriously” (188), causing her to cry. Interrupting sex, an emblem of masculinity, to combat the encroaching presence of a feminized, mass-market novel symbolizes his anxiety regarding the emasculatory properties of large-scale production. In this battle, Monk is ultimately overpowered by Jenkins; his relationship with Marilyn ends afterward. Through this scene, Erasure demonstrates that the feminine sphere of large-scale works that earns a high degree of economic capital is not only de-intellectualized in the literary field, but is also understood to be a threatening entity to the masculine, restricted, and culturally wealthy market.  

The anxiety that Monk suffers over his waning artistic integrity after publishing Fuck! pseudonymously as Stagg R. Leigh weighs heavily on his conscience. Grappling with being a “sell out” due to Fuck!’s commercial success, he is also disappointed in himself for “propping up…the artistic traditions that [he has] pretended to challenge” (156). Although Monk wrote Fuck! to combat and denaturalize the racist stereotypes that pervade We Lives in Da Ghetto and so-called African American literature, he ultimately propagates them. This tension manifests itself in a “story idea” which he details to the reader, interrupting the flow of the text and indicating a quick break in Monk’s narrative consciousness as if he were struck by inspiration:

a man marries a woman whose name is the same as that of his first wife. One night while making love he says her name and the woman accuses him of calling out the name of his first wife… He tells her that he was not thinking of his first wife, but she says she knows what she heard. (30)

Monk offers no further explanation for the motive of this story, but is contextualized within the novel’s wider doubling thematic: the second wife operates as a double of the first wife. To correlatively position Fuck! as a double of Jenkins’ We Lives in Da Ghetto reveals Monk wrestling with the fact that, contrary to his intentions for Fuck!, both his and Jenkins’ novels exist as identical pieces of work; in essence, reading one aloud would sound almost identical to the other, regardless of his objective of mockery. Both Fuck! and We Lives In Da Ghetto, texts Monk despises for their low literary value and commercial success, are characterized as women in this segment, thus mirroring the association of the feminine and mass-market art in Monk’s psyche; as a work of large-scale production, he positions Fuck! as a feminine object. Monk turmoils over his double, Stagg R. Leigh, who is simultaneously a double for Juanita Jenkins, a woman. Monk’s artistic death and the birth of Stagg R. Leigh are imbricated with fears of emasculation due to the patriarchal impulse to reject the feminine for its associations with intellectual inferiority. 

The literary field’s division of masculinity and femininity in relation to symbolic capital and scale of production is prominent in Monk’s artistic and psychological journey throughout Erasure. The female population of the field is portrayed as having a lower capacity for symbolic capital, which is then entangled with connotations of commercialization–evident in Monk’s relationship to Juanita Mae Jenkins’ novel, We Lives in Da Ghetto. As Monk wrestles with the depreciation of his artistic integrity with the publication of Fuck!, he faces his own anxieties of emasculation. The binary of gendered literary spheres is thus reproduced, minimizing the access female writers have to prestige; the glass ceiling remains transparent, but even still, solid.  

Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Field of Cultural Production, or: The Economic World Reversed.” Poetics, vol. 12, no. 4–5, 1983, pp. 311–356,

Everett, Percival. Erasure. Graywolf Press, 2011.