The Book Club

Again, I Say: White Boy Kitsch

Dear Jim,

I have mixed feelings about the radical skepticism with which you want to approach literature. I’m very, very much for it when you’re thinking and writing about literature; it’s good to pop literature’s balloon, to remind ourselves that it’s not pure but evolving, chaotic, and often philosophically unviable. But your goal of emotionless literature is not a rule to live by. It’s too schematic, too inflexible, not to mention a wet blanket. If I thought I’d have to review novel after novel written in affectless prose, describing only surfaces, and the inability of human beings to truly communicate–well, I’d rather iron my brain. And we’d lose too many books in which a miracle of the imagination occurred. If you really want to banish projected interiority from the novel then we have to cross Jane Austen, George Eliot, Chekhov, and a hell of a lot more of James than you think off the list. For me, this is a dealbreaker.

But Austen et al. wrote long ago, you might say. It’s today’s writers who should move beyond the old and no longer useful baggage of emotion. Hmm, this is intriguing; I’d really like to be open to it. Can you give me some good examples, better, I hope, than Ellis? I have–not an objection but a question. I’ll have to speak broadly here; I apologize in advance for any unfairness due to speed. You know that a major force in the so-called literary marketplace today is women’s fiction, the high end being, say, the Alices (Munro, McDermott, Hoffman) the low end being, oh, The Bridges of Madison County . Now, I’m not a fan of this genre, not even of the high-end stuff; I find it bourgeois, not so interesting, and (here I suspect you’d agree) wallowing in overcooked emotion.

Yet I’m suspicious when people say we should throw emotion off the train altogether, mostly because of a certain pattern I see. I hate to hang a label on you Jim, but it’s true–in my experience these people usually tend to be young white men. If women’s fiction overindulges emotion to the point of kitsch, flat denials like yours that emotions are interesting or significant or that they even exist go overboard in the opposite direction. They start out with real philosophical underpinnings, I’ll grant you, but very, very quickly they begin to sound like a defense of male territory, and they lead to a new set of clichés.

Carried to an extreme, the denial of emotion amounts to a kind of white boy kitsch; it also barely conceals a deep insecurity–to be charitable about it–regarding women. I really liked a lot of things about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (by the way, a flawed but so much more ambitious and admirable attempt at “post-emotional” fiction than the worthless Glamorama) but the women were a joke. It amazes me that Wallace can be so steeped in Wittgenstein, a master of awareness, and be so unaware! (Then again, it doesn’t amaze me: So often with these geniuses who teach us to step outside the frame, the insight comes accompanied by an allergy to women, which if you think about it long enough might call the insight into question.)

Did you read Infinite Jest? There were two major female characters. The first was a brilliant academic huckster who stepped out on her husband, invited teenage boys into her office for a little humping, and sold important secrets to anti-American terrorists. (Oh, and she was pretty but so tall it bordered on freakdom.) The other woman–I want to laugh as I write this, it’s so silly–was a sweet tarnished angel, a young lass from Kentucky so ravishing she caused men everywhere to want her, including her father, who was so maddened by his lust that he threw acid on her face, so that she had to spend the rest of her life wearing a–I’m laughing now–veil.

There’s nothing so ludicrously comical about Ellis’ treatment of women–perhaps, being gay, he’s not so threatened by desire. But there’s a lot that’s cliched, and vacant, and he can hate with the best of ‘em. To me this is a major challenge to his credibility, not just moral but artistic. And please don’t say he’s not enacting hatred of women but anatomizing it–that’s the oldest one in the book. I’m running out of space and I’ll have to describe this tomorrow; when you’re thinking about your response, try to keep in mind I’m not just talking about men thinking women aren’t as smart, or scattered violence.

I’m talking about something subtler, more pervasive, and more interesting than a lopped-off nipple.