Daniel Manus Pinkwater, one of the two or three last great male writers alive, is putting his new novel, The Yggyssey, online, one chapter each week. He is up to chapter four! Mr. Pinkwater, like so many men after him, attended Bard College (most probably concurrently with former feminist pioneer and current outcast Phyllis Chesler, as she is a year older than he), but some decades before Bard and Bennington and that sort of school became factories for today’s malformed, self-centered boy-writers.
The male writers we find on the pay-for-placement bookstore tables today could be the unhappy real-world future of Mr. Pinkwater’s narrator, Yggdrasil Birnbaum, who attends, near the corner of Sunset and Vine, the Harmonious Reality School, founded by a doctor of fruitopathy (it is what you would think), and where “the teachers are polite, and the kids, while confused and mostly illiterate, are friendly.”
It all sounds rather like a barely disguised parody of Deep Springs.
These writers, our boys not overseas, are friendly. And ambitious and ashamed of ambition. At night they plot. “He knew about every little magazine that ever was,” the late New York Times editorial board member Mary Cantwell wrote in her memoir Manhattan, When I Was Young, of the boy-writer she married in the 1950s.
A little penis, it turns out, can be a dangerous thing. But it’s not crazy at all to feel bad for the young male writers of our time, despite all they have done to us with their books. There are these legends that loom; all women, all terrifying. (Norman Mailer, sad to say, belongs to 1968, and that was so long ago already.)
Ursula Le Guin, who’s been tirelessly writing about war and conflict for the last 40 years in a way that no one has before or since, just published the big and lovely Lavinia, in which she picks up the history of the Latins where Virgil couldn’t be bothered to tread.
Renata Adler is now nearly finished with a new novel. (Almost! “Except for superstition,” Ms. Adler wrote in an e-mail last week.)
Katherine Dunn has still not turned in her long-awaited fourth novel—her most recent, Geek Love, is nearly 20 years old. And yet here she is. Her agent, Richard Pine, told me recently: “She’s going to have a book out next year—a collection of her boxing columns.”
Janet Malcolm’s latest, on Alice Toklas and Gertrude Stein, was slight and so modest, and also perfectly formed, a biography like the shell of a nautilus being laser-sheared open.
Sharon Olds, the strongest poet of our time—although, really, Erykah Badu is coming up on her, no?—has not had a new book in four years. (Perhaps she is waiting out the Bush regime.) But she will.
Do we need to even discuss Joan Didion? Particularly when no boy today can even surpass Edna O’Brien, the inventress of chick lit now nearing 80, who was always just way more groovy and readable than J. D. Salinger.
It’s no wonder that a fella can’t figger out what to do, with these Durgas and Rheas crashing around, rearranging seaboards and raising mountains.
FOUR YEARS AGO now, this newspaper expressed its discontent at the scruffy, feelings-talking boys that had begun to plague our city, and presumably other urban zones. (It also ends with what has since become a punch line: “With additional reporting by Jessica Joffe.”) But since then, men’s underwear has only become more sculpted, more package-enhancing; men’s thoughts have become smaller and more interior; and so their books have become more miserable, more antisocial.
“When did men get all the baggage?” one interview subject wondered back in 2004. Another suggested that they were just Frenchmen manqué. Which is why they want books. Bernard-Henri Lévy has books!
It’s rare that siblings have books published at the same time, but Masha and Keith Gessen both put something out this spring. Ms. Gessen is a longtime nonfiction writer who careens from newspaper hackery (that is praise) to reported family memoir to science writing; Mr. Gessen is an editor of n+1. His first novel, All The Sad Young Literary Men, resulted in a profile in the Styles section of The New York Times in which he should never have participated; it begins with him playing football with bond traders in the park and ends with his declaration of earnestness.
“To be poor in New York was humiliating, a little; but to be young—to be young was divine,” wrote Mr. Gessen early in his book, a sentence that reads like a rejected blurb to Cantwell’s 1995 memoir.
Ms. Gessen’s, Blood Matters, is a history and memoir of BRCA1 genetic mutation.
(She would surely object as much as he to this breezy comparison; and to his credit, he has also translated politically charged material from Russia. Also, let the record reflect that while he did attend Harvard, he did so on a scholarship!)
But. From Dave Eggers to Jonathan Safran Foer to Dana Vachon to Joshua Ferris to Jeff Hobbs to Charles Bock to Mr. Gessen, JT Leroy outdid them all. And he was a lady. And a bona fide nutjob.
Why can’t men write anymore? Why is Christopher Hitchens, a man who will seize upon any idea that causes a slight shock to build a book around, a prominent nonfiction writer of our time? Things are different now.
“What is peculiar to our time is a habit of disparagement, persisted in with a kind of obsessiveness that seems like rigor. We go to the shopping mall,” wrote Marilyn Robinson in The New York Times in 1985. (That was written so long ago that it does not appear on the Internet, and therefore there are no Google results at all for the essay’s excellent phrase “a dark night of the prole.”)
“In Amerika,” Andrea Dworkin wrote two years later, “there is the nearly universal conviction—or so it appears—that sex (fucking) is good and that liking it is right. …”
But these two facts have collided, with terrible results, since the delicious mid-’80s. The American desire for fucking has become, locally, the Brooklyn-based or -bound desire for a book deal and a brownstone. Men, finding that they cannot really get status or security from the ownership of women very often, find their very selves disparaged. Like most of us, they get their status first from consumption, and the way out is to become a maker of consumables; a high-class published author. And they are bewildered, I think, because their bewilderment shows in books that try to understand class and economic conditions even as they are being happily further ensnared by them. Their books read as if this were the first time they’d ever thought of all this.
Ms. Robinson—This may be apocryphal! It was relayed by a (male!) former student of hers—apparently lost the only manuscript of Housekeeping not once but twice, at least one of those times in a women’s bathroom. Not one of these boys would survive that.
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