More Sad Literary Young Men

At the New York Review of Books blog, Elaine Blair delivers a kind of update on Katie Roiphe‘s 2010 broadside on the (in Roiphe’s view) insipid boyishness of the generation of male novelists who followed Updike, Mailer, and Roth. Blair is a little more charitable, arguing that male writers’ diffidence about sex and seduction has as much to do with appealing to women in the book-buying marketplace as women in general. So:

When you see the loser-figure in a novel, what you are seeing is a complicated bargain that goes something like this: yes, it is kind of immature and boorish to be thinking about sex all the time and ogling and objectifying women, but this is what we men sometimes do and we have to write about it. We fervently promise, however, to avoid the mistake of the late Updike novels: we will always, always, call our characters out when they’re being self-absorbed jerks and louts. We will make them comically pathetic, and punish them for their infractions a priori by making them undesirable to women, thus anticipating what we imagine will be your judgments, female reader. Then you and I, female reader, can share a laugh at the characters’ expense, and this will bring us closer together and forestall the dreaded possibility of your leaving me.

I’m skeptical of the idea that fiction writers overtly game the marketplace; Sam Lipsyte or Gary Shteyngart, two male writers Blair calls out for special attention, seem no more interested in coddling demographics than Updike did. The shift Blair describes is more likely a reflection of changing cultural circumstances for middle-class men. In The Ask, for instance, Lipsyte’s everyschlub is exceedingly aware of his responsibilities as a husband and father, a situation Lipsyte brilliantly mines for comedy; the Updike who wrote Couples could write about characters who readily punted on those responsibilities.

One thought on “More Sad Literary Young Men

  1. Mark,
    I think you’re very right to point to structural changes rather than conscious self-marketing. It seems a little too cynical to take the genuinely tangled gender politics of someone like David Foster Wallace and assume that it’s a ploy. Blair’s argument reminds me of another NYBR piece, by Tim Parks, about the decreasing use of colloquialism in European fiction, a shift he sees as being about making the novels as attractive as possible to Anglophone publishing houses, as they would be simple to translate. I felt that his explanation was also overly reductive.

    On the other hand, one thing I don’t remember Roiphe discussing but which I think has a quite large effect on the present generation of male novelists is that very few of them have had any kind of extensive experience in a homosocial environment–either an all-male college or the military. For Updike and Mailer, clearly, those environments were formative. But Shteyngart, Franzen, DFW, Lipsyte, Eugenides all went to co-ed liberal arts colleges–not the best places in America to be socialized into a Mailer-esque attitude toward women.
    And in a roundabout way, I can see this lack of homosocialization as leading to a kind of implicit or subliminal self-marketing: having been formed largely in all-male environments made it much easier for men of Updike’s generation to ignore women as readers, as negligible demographically, while men of the present generation work from an assumption of a much more co-ed public sphere and readership.

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