In Defense of Ian Fleming: Moral Reading and Fictional Characters

by Benjamin Welton

I’ve sat in enough literature classrooms to know the refrain well. A young woman full of earnest conviction but enough neo-Marxist and Lacanian theory to sink a dreadnought will speak up and say “I cannot relate to this.” During one such case, a peer of mine took it step further by claiming that any man who writes to an explicitly male audience is a jerk and a woman hater. The book in question was Italo Calvino’s ‘If on a winter’s night a traveler‘, a postmodernist novel that isn’t explicitly written to anyone, especially not someone with little patience for Calvino’s nonstop merrymaking.

Invariably, when these in-class objections are raised, the books in question are from the hands of men from mid 20th century. Hard drinking, somewhat bitter, and sometimes womanizing men. F. Scott Fitzgerald comes to mind, and so too does James Joyce. Ernest Hemingway stands hulking above them all, but then again that was Hemingway’s point – he purposely cultivated an ultra-masculine cult around himself in much the same way that Jack London did a generation before.

63de85b55a0c8ecee63065c47fb9a1e4Ian Fleming, the slender and refined Englishman who wrote all fourteen of the original James Bond novels, usually doesn’t come up during these discussions, but within the confines of a literature survey course, there are two reasons for this:

1) Fleming is hardly regarded as literature, let alone literature worthy of discussion, and;

2) it seems almost taken as a given that Fleming, the brain behind the arch misogynist Bond, was just as bad as the rest of them.

After all, only a true hater of women could write something as vituperative as “Women were for recreation. On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried. One had to look out for them and take care of them” (Chapter IV, Casino Royale).

Well, here’s the crux of the matter. These aren’t Fleming’s words, per se. During this passage, the voice that is speaking is Bond’s and Bond’s alone. Fleming, unlike a lot of writers, never showered his creation with undue praise, and one could easily assert that Fleming would have regarded a real life 007 as a bit of a cad.

More importantly, we as readers should always be wary of equating writers with their creations. Simply put, this act denigrates the creativity and hard work of the authors themselves. If Fleming had wanted to make Bond in his image, that Agent 007 would have been a failed banker with Cull &Co., a lackluster British Intelligence agent, and a husband who had to suffer the sneers of a pretentious wife.

b02005c3455be4f24630c32e3ce164c0

Bond of course does share some surface-level similarities with his creator, from the occupation of espionage to the love of the liquor (although, to be fair to Fleming, Bond’s consumption of 92 units of alcohol per week* is a little steep, even for the notoriously wet author), but then again Bond might share similarities with hundreds of other men. Of even greater importance is the fact Bond never existed at all. He’s pure but well-drawn fiction. That’s one of the reasons why men devour the Bond novels – he lives a life that no man can. As Dr. Timothy Stanley wrote in the Daily Telegraph on December 13, 2013,

“Pulp heroes are guys who live as guys would really like to if they could: drinking, smoking and yet saving the world and getting the girl (and shooting her is she turns out to be a double agent). They’re not supposed to be realistic because if they were then Bond would probably be a boring health freak who spends his life sipping orange juice, decoding messages and never, ever chasing bad asses in a flying car.”

Who’d want to read a realistic Bond novel? Better yet, who’d willingly sit down and watch a James Bond film where 007 talks incessantly about fat free this or steamed that? I for one would not, for my personal Bond is the perfected masculine idol, with a steel stomach, no shred of self-doubt, and good aim. In short, Bond is escapism.

gty_sean_connery_diamonds_kb_ss_130402_ssv

This label is more apt for the films though, for the Fleming originals are certainly chock full of spectacular writing and plenty of subtle political commentary and historical interest. Also, in regards to the Bond films, they essentially distill down to blunt broad strokes Fleming’s novels, and as such they mostly depict a swaggering and lecherous Bond with little time for domestication. In the books however, Bond falls in love twice: with Tiffany Case in Diamonds Are Forever and Teresa “Tracy” di Vincenzo, his ill-fated wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. With these women, Bond shows a tenderness unmatched by many of his fellow pulp heroes. Case in particular brings out the best in him, and it should be noted that this is a pairing between a supposed woman hater and a supposed man hater. Odd bedfellows, indeed.

In the end, it’s all bunk though. One could argue until the end of days about whether or not Fleming was a misogynist and still not come to a perfect conclusion for everyone. The one truth here is that the reader looking for misogyny will find it, but that reader will have missed the point and pleasure of reading. Yes, readers should be encouraged to make moral judgments about novels. But, according to American Conservative writer Micah Mattix, “good readers should allow books to judge them, too.”

What then are the values of those readers who utterly write-off Fleming as a misogynist peddler? In the war for open minds, who is currently taking the higher ground?

[*Bond’s alcohol consumption was found as part of a study committed by the Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust.]

Incidental Intelligence

Benjamin WeltonThe product of northern West Virginia’s identity complex, Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer, critic, author, and poet whose work has appeared in such publications as the Atlantic, Vantage Point, Crime Magazine, and Aberrant Labyrinth. He graduated with an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Vermont, where he taught Basic English composition for two years. Before that, Mr. Welton attended West Virginia University (B.A. in English and History, summa cum laude) and served in the United States Naval Reserve.

Visit Ben’s blogs http://literarytrebuchet.blogspot.com/ and http://benjaminwelton.blogspot.com/

Read The Man Arthur Conan Doyle Called ‘America’s Sherlock Holmes’ for The Atlantic

View Ben’s Amazon author page

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “In Defense of Ian Fleming: Moral Reading and Fictional Characters

  1. “Well, here’s the crux of the matter. These aren’t Fleming’s words…Fleming, unlike a lot of writers, never showered his creation with undue praise…More importantly, we as readers should always be wary of equating writers with their creations.”

    Exactly. Fleming intentionally presents Bond as a cold, harsh figure in Casino Royale. Vesper is even warned about that by her boss in Station S. The book’s storyline shows Bond gradually thawing out until Vesper’s death makes him revert the machine Mathis teased him for being. Bond’s objectionable thoughts are not there because Fleming was foaming at the mouth with misogyny. They exist to show what Bond almost overcame before he fell out of love with Vesper. And some of the book’s most misogynistic passages should be read ironically in light of the ending, when it’s revealed that Vesper was much better at her job than Bond had ever thought.
    Because people have such low opinions of Fleming, they don’t bother engaging with fundamental elements of literary criticism such as not confusing the writer with his characters. Your article deserves praise for emphasizing why he deserves closer reading.

    A couple of briefer notes: it might be unfair to call Fleming “a lackluster British Intelligence agent’–though he spent most of the war at a desk, by all accounts he performed quite well at his job and was praised by the head of Naval Intelligence for being a “war-winner.”
    I would also add Domino to the list of women Bond falls in love with–he even admits the fact to her.

    • Thank you for the kind words. I must admit that Domino skipped my mind (an unfortunate lapse, indeed), so it’s good of you to point that out. As for Fleming’s war record, I now see that “lackluster” might be a little too harsh, and yet most historians seem to conclude that Fleming the war agent oscillated between bumbling and middling. Maybe that’s just most evidence of anti-Fleming bias, no?

  2. Pingback: Fleming Defends Bond as ‘Exclusive’ | Artistic License Renewed

Comments?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s