Monday, July 16, 2012

Are Modern Male Novelists Creating Modern Male Losers In Order To Apologize?

Jonathan Franzen, that would be.
My answer:  no.

In this recent New York Review of Books article, Elaine Blair argues that there's a new trend among contemporary male American authors: to make guy characters self-abasing, in order to apologize to women readers for those characters' boorish and sexist obsessions with sex and their tendency to objectify women.  The apology is needed because it's essential for male readers to be loved by female readers, and female readers were getting irritated by male writers' self-obsession and positive views of their own sexuality. 

She traces the framework of the problem back to David Foster Wallace.  Wallace's idea was that back in the day, there were the "Great Male Narcissists" (Wallace's term) -- guys like John Updike, Norman Mailer, and Philip Roth.  Those GMN's roamed the earth with pride.  They relentlessly and unselfconsciously wrote about themselves, and they wrote with candor about sex:  about their sexual lives, sexual needs, seductions, and obsessions.

The problem was that in novels of the GMNs, as Blair puts it, "the heroes continue, all the way to the end of their lives, to view sex, apart from love, as a solution for extra-sexual problems—as a balm for everything wrong with life, especially the looming fact of death."  The GMNs presented sexual freedom as a cure-all.

This presentation annoyed women, who described Updike in particular with phrases like "penis with a thesaurus."  Women mocked and complained.  Instead of sexual pride they saw narcissistic boasting; instead of candor they saw boorishness.  "So you want to fuck every young thing that comes around?"  they said.  "And you want us to be all fascinated and admiring?  I don't think so."

Blair's idea is that male authors were hurt by this kind of rejection.  So they changed tactics, got new strategies.  Now, instead of GMNs, you have MMLs:  Modern Male Losers (my term).  Modern Male Novelists (MMNs) also write about themselves, and also write about sex a lot.  But they include an implicit apology for their characters' thoughts in the form of making their characters losers (MMLs).  Examples include Gary Shteyngart, Sam Lipsyte, and Jonathan Franzen. 

Blair's argument is that there's an implicit appeal from these guys to Ms. Reader:  if I show the boors as boorish, you'll still love me, right?  Even if the boors can't stop thinking about a woman's breast while she's trying to have a serious conversation? 

I should never read these kinds of essays because they make me feel like I'm from Mars. 

First:   Philip Roth as a "Great Male Narcissists"?  I don't like Updike, and I've never read Mailer, but I've read -- and reread -- many of Roth's novels and I'd have said his view is not only different from but is maybe the opposite from the one attributed to him by the GMN narrative.

Yes, Roth's characters are often obsessed with sexual adventurousness, with sexual promiscuity, and with sexual libertinism, and yes, they're obsessed with their own obsessions.  But to take the moral as the naive belief that these things will bring The Good Life?  As if what makes the Rothians unhappy is their irrational inhibitions?  I'd have said the Rothians are in one of the central binds of modern life:  what you love, what you need, what makes you feel alive, these are also the things that will kill you, or at least ruin your life.  At least if you're not careful.  And being careful is impossible. 

When Roth's male characters get bored with one woman and have to move on to another, when, heartbreakingly, they don't even get involved with a woman because they know they're going to get bored and leave her, it seems to me the moral is not Oh If Only I Could Sleep Around and Enjoy It but rather This Love and Sex Thing Is Impossible.  Ever see a happy lothario in Roth's books?  I didn't think so. 

It always bothers me, actually, when people say Roth's books are "about sex."  Because yeah, on one level sure, they're about sex.  But to me they're about sex as a mere instantiation of this deeper problem, which, if you consider it abstractly, is the problem of death:  it's the problem of feeling alive, and what that does to you.

Second:  It's never been clear to me why the fact of thinking about sex, or having sex a lot, or having it with a lot of different people, is in itself boorish or sexist.  From what I understand, many gay men think about and have sex a lot, often with different people.  If we're talking about men with other men, presumably this isn't instantiating sexism.  Is it instantiating boorishness?  I guess it could.  But it doesn't in general.  It might be boorish only if you were doing something like constantly trying to push someone into having sex with you, or thinking only about sex when someone's trying to talk about something serious and not sexy.  If there's a problem, it doesn't seem like a quantity problem.  It's a context problem. 

Plausibly, context is one of the things people are noticing and complaining about in the GMN and MML narrative.  Blair cites a passage from The Corrections in which an MML writes an awful screenplay and as his girlfriend is breaking up with him she explains that among other things, the screenplay is full of boorish breast references.  "For a woman reading it," she says, "it’s sort of like the poultry department. Breast, breast, breast, thigh, leg."  This MML, Blair says, "has completely failed to understand the female point of view."  "His humiliations will be many."

But this brings me to --

Third:  if a male novelist has a character who fails to understand the female point of view, and who is a loser, isn't a simple explanation that he's describing an experience he finds common, that a man fails to understand a female point of view and THEREFORE loses out on things, becomes a loser

There's a scene I love in Sam Lipsyte's novel The Ask in which a man goes to drop off his kid at the day care center and finds that it's closed, and he runs into a woman also trying to drop off her kid. His marriage is falling apart, and he interprets their exchange as intense flirting, fully expecting that after their conversation they'll head back to her place for sex while the kids watch a video or something.  Of course, she has nothing like that in mind.  Of course, she just says goodbye. 

If this guy is thinking about sex, then fails to understand the female point of view, and then is humiliated, isn't it more likely that Lipsyte thought the interconnected thinking, failing, and humiliation are characteristic of life as a modern man than that he was implicitly apologizing to his female reader for presenting a guy obsessed with thinking about sex?

There's some other stuff, but I'll stop here.  Putting it all together, I think the answer to the question of the title is No, Modern Male Novelists Are Not Creating Modern Male Losers In Order To Apologize. 

They're not pursuing a literary tactic.  They're trying to understand something real and important about modern life, about masculinity, about how to live well, about relations between men and women.  And they're succeeding. 

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