Oh, Shel…

“and she loved a little boy very, very much-even more than she loved herself.”

I’m sure every bookseller has, at some point, begrudgingly put their least favorite book in a reader’s basket. Why? Oh, they asked you. That’s how customer service works. And really, if they have specifically requested the horrid thing, it’s not like you can tell them the truth when they ask “Oh, isn’t this just the most beautiful book ever to be written?”

Offending the tastes of random strangers may not seem like such a big deal when you’re off the clock, but as booksellers, it can be a headache. Especially when your beef with a book lies not in it’s poetry or in the storyline, but in it’s fundamentally oppressive themes.

This week over at the Paris Review, David Mamet offers readers five vignettes, a series called Several Men. These stores disinterest me in a number of ways. I don’t care for high literature and I don’t believe men need articles specifically written because of their gender. Men already dominate the literary world.

At any rate, Mamet has chosen an interesting subject today: Shel Silverstein.

Shel…Oh Shel…

Okay, look, I’ll admit that his art is rather interesting and stimulating, capturing the attention of young people across the nation. He’s an icon, whatever, I get it. But I’ll never not think that The Giving Tree was a load of sexist poo.

Yeah, poo.

There have already been several critiques of the relationship between the boy and the tree. As the book turns 50 this year, I’m sure more will come. Hell, I’m only writing about this not because a more experienced bookseller gave me the low-down on my second day on the job. Without her guidance, I probably wouldn’t have given this book a second thought.

But my beef boils down to this: Why would some dude write a book about another dude taking everything a tree has to offer, with no remorse until the last page when he realizes what he’s done? Was it supposed to be satirical? Were kids supposed to understand the subtle message of environmental conservation?

Children read and absorb information all the time, throughout the day, during all activities. They are constantly learning, preparing for a life of constant embarrassment and time-consuming Netflix binges (or maybe that was just me.) To some people, TGT is just some cute little story about a tree that loves a boy and why are these damn feminists always complaining about something GEEZ IT’S LIKE THEY’RE TRYING TO BE OFFENDED FOR ATTENTION FROM THE MENZ.

Which is a sexist attitude, much like assuming women only exist to be consumed and spat out by a man so he can learn a lesson.

But these problematic representations manifest themselves in our reality. There are men out there who really do use the energy of women for their own benefit, without any expectation of reciprocity. Based on what Mamet recalls of Silverstein, I think TGT was less of a parable and more of a meditation on his own beliefs.

At the time of the book’s release, many Christian groups saw TGT as a lesson in selflessness, how good it feels to give and give and give. Which means that the person we are meant to identify with is the little boy who takes and takes and takes. When he finally exploits every possible resource of the tree, we are supposed to feel sympathy for the little boy, who now has only a stump for a friend, but can still rest his weary bones on her when he wants. By postulating the boy as the main character, girls are taught that selflessness is their most important trait. The tree, a woman, or at the very least a feminine character, is what girls should aspire to be: a beacon of love and comfort for men. But that love and comfort comes at a price. In order to fulfill this aspiration, she must strip herself of all resources and energy.

In short, I don’t understand the literary world’s obsession with misogynistic men. Men like Silverstein are celebrated in our collective consciousness, always associated with the good feelings that arise from reading great books. But I can’t separate the man from the fiction. They are explicitly tied to each other. If Silverstein walks like a misogynist, if he talks like a misogynist, then he writes like a misogynist, because he is a misogynist.


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