Zoe Heller on Feminism, Rushdie and more…

Not one to mince words, be it through her widely popular book reviews, which are often more readable than the texts they review or her complex characters and their ambiguous motives, novelist and journalist Zoë Heller talks books, movies, Feminism, Rushdie, 50 shades, religion and more.


Your third novel, Believers, talks about the perils of entrenched ideas and beliefs. This girl who goes to Cuba, comes back disillusioned and then takes to an orthodox form of Judaism. So if you could just elaborate on that idea a bit, because at the end of the day we need to have certain ideals…

I think one of the things I started out with was the idea of trying to describe a certain group of people who seem to have a kind of almost biological predisposition to faith, whether it was the faith of a political or of a religious nature. They were just naturally inclined to being true believers and in my life I have met people who are more inclined to be sceptics and people who are more inclined to take on a set of principles or ideas or beliefs and stick to them no matter what, and I’m really fascinated in that steadfastness and clearly, there are some things about it which one associates with virtues- loyalty of ideas, weathering storms, staying true- and on the other hand there are some real problems with sticking to something even when there’s an enormous amount of evidence mounting up to  tell you that possibly what you thought was the case, really isn’t. So I think the book is in large about exploring tension between the virtue and vice of being a believer.

This is a general question related to that theme. How does one make sense of these disorienting times as a sceptic?

Well, I don’t know. I’m not sure that the times are more disorienting now than they were for people a 100 years ago or a 1000 years ago. It’s in the nature of the times that they always feel disorienting and possibly more disorienting than ever but I’m not sure if the current confusion and angst is unprecedented.  I suppose the popular notion is that faith in God or in a political ideal, your life is easy and I suppose by and large, I imagine it is but I don’t have any real answers for how one navigates one’s confusion really. The worst thing is, it’s difficult for me to answer that question in part because the idea of navigating these things without belief, I never had belief, so I never had it to lose, you know, so things have always been confusing. I think it must be terrible to sort of have felt that you got the world sussed out and then have the rug pulled from underneath but I never thought I had the world sussed down. That’s a long drawn answer but does it answer your question?

It does, I guess. So Zoë Heller is not an entrenched believer in anything?

I’m an atheist but I believe in abstracts like love, I suppose, I have sort of principles and political beliefs as well and I suppose something that could amount to various ideas about the way one should live and ideas about morality and ethics but not an overarching religious structure.

Recently I was reading this article by Erica Jong and there she is talking about her daughter and she’s saying that her daughter thinks that the age of sexual revolution, so far as feminists are concerned, is over because she has seen her mother been there, done that and so now she wants to go the family way. I found that article very disturbing. Is it still time to make such simplistic conclusions?

No, I think Erica Jong is describing a particular dynamic between her and her daughter but I think it’s dangerous to deduce anything from that.

But she does make some generalisations…

You can’t sample it from a particular family dynamic that it’s something about a society at large. Children often react against their parents and so you know you spend your life as a socialist, I will be a conservative. You are a feminist pioneer, I’m going to rediscover the joys of hearth and home. I think feminism is absolutely as relevant as it ever was and I see no sign of it being on its deathbed, I see a whole new generation of lively interesting smart young feminist women coming up. I don’t worry for the future of Feminism.

Which brings me to Naomi Woolf’s biography of the Vagina and her idea of mysticism – and that fantastic review that you’ve written. Why I’m asking this is not just because of Naomi Wolf, in India there are quite a few poets who call themselves feminists and they are exploring mysticism and how you locate feminism in religion. They’re exploring the Shiva, Durga…

You know I won’t want to deduce in a hurry from what you just described because I haven’t read what you’re citing but I recently heard about a woman in Egypt who is doing painstaking work. She is essentially trying to do a feminist reading of the Quran. Well there’s a part of me as a non-religious person that sort of thinks that it doesn’t speak to me because this is a religious text, but I think that’s an enormously important thing to do because a great portion of the world took to Quran as a holy text and the idea that it isn’t to be read in just one way and that there is a multiplicity of interpretations. The fight against a fundamentalist reading of the Quran or any other religious text is an important one. So it seems to me that if somebody wants to have a feminist reading of Hinduism, I’m not debating that. My rejections towards things that Naomi Wolf was writing about was that she was being prescriptive about the nature of female sexuality and how women should get pleasure and I think her ideas are nonsensical and I also think they have completely spurious and fake scientific basis and I’m not buying it. (laughs)

Coming to another review you’ve written recently of Joseph Anton. How do you think Rushdie lost his plot?

What do you mean by that?

I’m talking in a very subjective way and I am not talking for you. I’m talking as a reader of Rushdie. I loved his works post fatwah. But his over simplification of the idea of extremism and the fact that the book makes very distasteful comments about his relationships, which of course even you have highlighted in your piece… so it does feel sad that a writer of such calibre has actually been reduced to just another celebrity who loves his parties! And that’s what he draws from maybe now…

You know I wouldn’t want what I wrote in that piece to be mistaken for some puritanical reprimand. I don’t mean to suggest that writers ought to really remain in their studies and not be seen out dancing. I would only raise an eyebrow at when he makes that point in the book that he had to go out and be seen at clubs, parties, book launches and fancy places in order to assuage the fears and anxieties of his friends and the general public. That seemed to be the point I was making. I think the writers were trying to interpret the lives that they wish to pursue and there’s no reason that a writer shouldn’t go out clubbing and have fun and continue to be a good writer. So I don’t think and I wouldn’t care to try and make some connection between the life Rushdie leads, which I don’t know much about and the kind of writings he does these days.

Guardian has done an article on these two reviews (Vagina and Joseph Anton) and they’ve of course said that it’s one of the best hatchet jobs of last year and then in the concluding paragraph they’ve written “The only thing is that Dorothy Parker is remembered for the reviews that she wrote and not much of her stories and poems”. What does Zoë Heller have to say to that?

I have a problem with the whole idea of the hatchet job because people use it in a congratulatory way that “oh you’ve written a great hatchet job”, “Oh you really ground nosed that person well”.  It is like if I had written a favourable review, then I am not worthy of being congratulated because I am a great suck-up. To me a hatchet job suggests a set of motivations that really weren’t there when I wrote the piece. It’s as far as one can be pure about these things, I wrote it in a pure spirit. I don’t have any personal animosity towards the man. I don’t know him. I haven’t borne a grudge against him for many years. I read the book, I thought long and hard about some of the issues he explores in that book and I wrote about them carefully because he’s a big figure and because I care about those things too. The hatchet job thing suggests a kind of malice or an aggression which really for me is, I don’t think is either in my mind or in the piece.

Coming to your two books, the novels, do you believe in this idea that the author is dead once the book is out?

Well clearly not because events like literary festivals exist and somebody pointed it out the other day that book sales are declining in many places in England but festivals are virgins so you find yourself in this bizarre situation where the experience of encounters with authors grows more popular, but the actual sort of real business of sitting alone with a book, the appetite for that seems to be diminishing and  if what you’re asking about is you send a book out into the world and of course everyone’s going to interpret it in various ways, so yes that’s always been the case. As a writer, I think, you do have to reconcile yourself and I think I’ve become better whether it’s through journalism or novels or whatever, I’m better at sending these out to the world, so what will be will be. Sometimes one feels misread in grievous ways you can’t fathom. It’s sort of part of the business.

When I was researching on some of the feedback that you received for the two novels and you got feedback like – these are not likeable characters, why have you written about such non likable characters…

Yes that’s a big bug of mine. If any of them are hard to take, that one is the hardest because that really makes you feel that you’re failing in your fundamental duty to engage the reader and have them drawn into your novel and into the fates of the people your writing about but there’s only so far I can accommodate or deal with this problem. I’m not about to start writing about saints and it seems to me-I’ll say it in my arrogant, dogged way- the fault really lies with the reader’s expectation. They’re expecting something from the novel, a kind of warm and cosy encounter with somebody lovable who they would like as a friend or that they can look up to, which I’m not interested in providing. Actually if I think about the great writers that I have loved and clearly many others have loved, they’re not in the business of doing that either. Somebody once asked, “would you like Lord and Lady Macbeth to come to dinner? “ (Laughs) meaning that there are plenty of people in literature who are fascinating, in whose dilemmas and fates you are deeply invested without approving of them or wanting to have friends like them.

“I don’t think there’s necessarily a sort of an apocalypse-the world has suddenly become coarser than it ever was!”

So what does it say about the readers when 50 Shades of Grey becomes THE book, the best seller?

I don’t think it says anything new, I don’t think there’s necessarily a sort of an apocalypse-the world has suddenly become coarser than it ever was! I think it’s a sort of rude awakening about the glorious democratised digital future. People saw publishing on the internet as a thing that really takes off and is commonly considered to be fairly crappy as a piece of literature. But I think the thing about the book that one has to remember is people aren’t reading it for literary  purposes, it’s kind  of soft porn for women and clearly that’s a very large market that hasn’t been sufficiently exploited. (laughs)

Does it also mean that their partners have failed to satisfy them? (Laughs)

No I think the other thing that has shocked people is the idea that you know there’s this huge mainstream appetite among women for S and M and that’s part of the amazement and I’ve seen various anguish pieces with women tearing their hair off , is this the end of feminism? Or is feminism in retreat because women really want to be tied up and whipped? I don’t think it does mean that. I sort of actually think that it’s always been not necessarily a clear line but nonetheless a line between people’s sexual fantasies and their political desires and their wish for how they are treated as individuals in life as opposed to in the bedroom.

In Notes on a Scandal, what I found interesting was the power equation between the teenager and the woman. Children are portrayed in a god like way in the popular media but we fail to address the complexities of childhood…

When you said that, I don’t think you were necessarily talking about my work, what immediately occurred to me was a fantastic book A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. It was a great novel, it was based in the early 1900s and is all about a group of children who get captured by pirates on their way from a Caribbean island back to England and it’s a beautifully sophisticated account of the mixture of innocence and un-innocence that exists in children. To address your question, adults- they’re always completely held apart but one only has to see a child having a tantrum in a supermarket and alarmed paralysed mother. Sometimes children can wrest some of the powers in situations from the hands of adults. Nonetheless adults are adults and I very much believe the responsibility to behave well and to conduct themselves appropriately is on the adults because they’re the fully formed models and children aren’t.

Believers has been taken up for filming, will it be adapted?

A guy was supposed to script it, and ended up not writing it, so I have a feeling it’s never going to be taken up into a movie. It had the opportunity twice and most things end up getting made, I don’t think this one will.

Did you like the adaptation of Notes on a Scandal?

I was reconciled with the way that it was going to be different. When you adapt the book into a movie, it has to become a different thing because it’s been changed into a different medium, so it was a very different thing. Its ending was changed, a lot had been worked upon, that you must have seen by now.

What’s on your reading list currently?

Soon I’m going to be giving an award to a woman called Paula Fox, I’ve been reading her books! The other thing I’m reading is Collected Short Stories by Isaac Babel.

Your favourite authors?

I love Sybille Bedford, I love Paula Fox, George Eliot, Joseph Roth, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens.

What are you working on currently?

A new novel and paying my bills through journalism! (Laughs)

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