May 23, 2006

Lad lit, a summary.

By Michael Kimmel (via A&L Daily):
I may be 30, but I act 15. I am adrift in New York. I'm too clever by half for my own good. I live on puns and snide, sarcastic asides. I don't look too deeply into myself or anyone else — everyone else is boring or a phony anyway. I may be a New Yorker, but I am not in therapy. I have a boring job, for which I am overeducated and underqualified, but I lack the ambition to commit to a serious career. (Usually I have family money.) I hang out with my equally disconnected friends in many of the city's bars. I drink a lot, take recreational drugs, don't care about much except being clever. I recently broke up with my girlfriend, and while I am eager to have sex, which I do often given the zillions of available women in New York, the sex is not especially fulfilling, and emotions rarely enter the picture. I am deeply shallow. And I know it.

Oh, and then something happens. I go on a journey, get inside the media machinery, sort-of fall for a new girl. Or 9/11 happens, but that doesn't really affect me much either. And though I might now mouth some bland platitudes about change, anyone can see that I'm still the same guy I was before. Only different. But not really.
Kimmel -- a sociologist -- continues his scorn in the third person:
Each work is written in the first person, by a destabilized, unreliable narrator; these books are like one long run-on sentence of self-justification and rationalization....

Despite being obsessed with getting laid, the characters, oddly, seem unconcerned about sex itself. Perhaps it is too demanding. Tom Farrell's most emotionally intimate conversations are with his penis.

Nor does anyone seem especially ambitious professionally....

Political commitment also is scorned, seen as a naïve symptom of actually caring about something....

The characters in these books are as unmemorable and faceless as the men in the gray flannel suits they hold in such contempt....
But don't worry. These books aren't doing particularly well:
Women won't read these books unless there is some hope of redemption, some effort these guys make to change. And men won't read them because, well, real men don't read.
"Real men don't read"? I think he means don't read novels. They read the newspaper don't they? (I don't know. Lately, reading the NYT, I've been thinking the whole thing seems constructed to appeal to women.)

They read blogs, don't they?

49 comments:

David Boyd said...

Yeah, some read blogs. However, AJ banging away at the computer in his underwear, giggling like schoolgirl, hit a little too close to home for me and I am considering giving up the practice.

Ron said...

Well, we used to read blogs...but now we just look at the one's with photos, so we can tell in a glance who won American Idol.

Sydney Carton said...

Real men don't read trash like that, that's for sure. In fact, aside from Tom Wolfe, the only books I read are those published before 1960. The older, the better.

Ann Althouse said...

Far, far better.

yetanotherjohn said...

I read about 75 books a year and secure enough not to worry about his opinion on manhood. But I wouldn't read that book.

The funny thing is from the little snippit you had, I know exactly what his problem is and the solution. But he would never believe me.

John Jenkins said...

How about, "Real men don't read fiction"?

(which is blatantly self-serving)

StrangerInTheseParts said...

I'm a mid-30's guy and live in New York. For years, I walked on the sidewalk staring at all the dudes walking around in my supposed peer-group and thought thoughts about them very similar to Mr. Kimmel's.

At some point, I started to realize having thoughts like Mr. Kimmel's were totally symptomatic of the very character he is describing.

And then I started to pay attention to the actual men I know in the city and realized that while many have some of these qualities - none are actually like that. At worst, that kind of behavior is a phase that a lot of guys pass through for a few years. The quality of being untouched cannot last too long. Shallowness and casual sex inevitably lead to a state of much more serious ickiness if they are not abandoned.

Re: do men read and what do they read. That's a more real problem I suspect. The Times - in fact all periodicals - are clearly targetted toward a feminine sensibility. I'm sure they do that because they know who their readers are.

Sean said...

Real men read some kinds of novels, to wit, action-adventure novels: Tom Clancy, Flashman, Jack Aubrey. Real men don't read novels that are explicitly about feelings, even slacker, beer and babes feelings, because talking about feelings makes them go away.

Ann Althouse said...

I think some of you aren't getting the first quote. It's a composite of all lad lit books, put together by Kimmel to satirize the genre.

Pogo said...

Currently reading
Robert Conquest: The Dragons of Expectation; Reality and Delusion in the Course of History. An amazing work.

Last novel read: To Kill A Mockingbird. Again. In 2005.
I know, I know. But the mock review posted here merely strengthens my resolve to avoid recent novels altogether.

These objections were well-covered in B. R. Myers' 2002 A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose. Hilarious.

tcd said...

Would this be literature for "grups"?

Ann Althouse said...

Myers was talking about a different sort of book altogether (the literary novel).

StrangerInTheseParts said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Pogo said...

Ann, I don't tend to abide by those categorizations much, and if I recall correctly, Myers discussed the artificiality of such distinctions among novels.

He maintained that it's either fiction, or it's not. It's good, or it's not.

StrangerInTheseParts said...

Ann -

Kimmel's article is little more than an addition to the culture of Lad Lit. As a sociologist commenting on navel - gazing boy-men authors he pretends to elevate himself above his subject. But, writing a scholarly article in order to heap scorn on these writers is really just another permutation of the same smug, shallow, pseudo-commentary on culture that McInerney and his ilk have been perpetrating for decades: The supposedely wise and erudite decimation of the shallow culture that surrounds my brilliant little self.

(I include Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace in the same group - brilliant men who piss away their talents being clever and detached. But people LOVE those guys, so I often keep this opinion to myself. )

Baronger said...

Lad Lit ... I had to look it up on Wikipedia. I read a lot but have never read any of this. Unless of course Wodehouse counts; are Berty and Jeeves novels Lad Lit?

Anyway give me good sci-fi/fantasy any day. The more action the better. Lad Lit doesn't sound like my cup of tea.

Actually at first I thought it was a spof of sex in the city, until I saw it was a guy. Are you sure it isn't women who read this stuff?

Palladian said...

Take the man that Kimmel describes and put him in ill-fitting, studiously unwashed clothes and give him a low-rise mohawk and a rat-tail and cover his eyes with aviator sunglasses and you have 90% of the men in my neighborhood. Oh and they're often "artists". And riding skateboards.

I don't read fiction, except if it's written in verse.

dick said...

I have tried to read some of these POS. I find that the main characters remind me of all the pre-yuppies I have met and all the 40-something guys who do ecstasy and pile into the clubs trying to score. I get about 50 pages into the book and find myself dropping it into the nearest trash can.

I much prefer reading mysteries and classic books. These lad-lit, just like the chick-lit, remind me of all the people I go out of my way to avoid. Why should I then spend time reading about them? Even if the writers are good, the subject matter is so dreary that any good ness they have is lost.

I am reminded of all the beat poets with their deep thoughts that meant nothing and the hippies who sat there drumming while they talked about their latest drug escapades. Granted some of them were worth reading but I can wait for them to float to the top. As for the rest, why bother!

Jeff said...

This describes almost as many women that I know as men.

Who do you think dates these guys in the first place?

P. Froward said...

Real men don't read fiction? Hmm. Assuming that writers read the stuff, was Hemingway a real man? James Jones? How about Gertrude Stein? Or Dashiell Hammett? Stendahl was a lieutenant of dragoons.

Somebody mentions Flashman above; George MacDonald Fraser was a grunt in Burma in WWII. That's manly, I think.

jult52 said...

Two comments:

1) Can the posters reading Kimmel's pretty funny send-up and then concluding that contemporary fiction is worthless be anymore ignorant or stupid? Answer: No.

You're living in a Golden Age of fiction, nitwits. You won't like all of it -- no one does -- but condemning it based on on Lad Lit is colossally moronic.

2) I just finished David Wallace's "Consider the Lobster" (which I recommend highly) and I don't think he is "detached" at all. Clever, yes. But he discusses complex emotions repeatedly.

P. Froward said...

And Kim du Toit reads fiction.

Of course, you've got this very recent notion from some people on the left who claim that most masculine behavior is proof of a lack of masculinity (like the recent study which proved that coprolalic Kos Kids, who regard giant papier mache puppet heads as a valid logical proof of their beliefs, are more mature and thoughtful than everybody else). Which leaves me wondering how that behavior ever got to be associated with masculinity to begin with.

StrangerInTheseParts said...

jult52 -

Glad you took up a defense of the contemporary writers. All contemporary writing is not Lad-lit. There's plenty of good stuff out ther, though "Golden Age" may be a little strong.

Re: Wallace. I know he 'discusses' complex emotions - and quite well. What I wonder is if you EXPERIENCED any complex emotions when you read him? Did you sense that he is a man of much feeling and candor? His subject matter - however subtle - seens to always be pinned down in a dissecting tray, cut open ingeniously for our 'delight'. He's a great writer and thinker, but something is lacking in the realm of feeling and catharsis which I get from, say, Barbara Kingsolver or even Jeffery Eugenides - who are probably both 'lesser minds' than Foster on many scales.

Dave said...

Palladian: "Take the man that Kimmel describes and put him in ill-fitting, studiously unwashed clothes and give him a low-rise mohawk and a rat-tail and cover his eyes with aviator sunglasses and you have 90% of the men in my neighborhood. "

You're in NYC, right? What neighborhood has these characters? Don't tell me you're in Red Hook??

Surely there are more interesting places to live...

Terrence Berres said...

In response to P. Froward, I vote no on Gertrude Stein.

P. Froward said...

If DFW isn't "detached", then so what? One point does not a curve make.

However, and I haven't read the lobster thing but I've read the others, DFW doesn't seem to me to be a very visceral writer. Whenever it gets heavy, he starts clowning.

Look at the Wheelchair Assassins in Infinite Jest. "To hear the squeak"? And how about Orin Incandenza? Everything about Orin. Or what happens to Joelle Van Dyne's mother. Wallace does let things get relatively serious with Gately, at least.

It's detached.

But I liked it enough to read it twice. It's a memorable novel, with memorable characters, pity and terror, and, and everything like that. I'm not sure what IJ is, but it isn't bullshit. I suspect he's the only one in that crowd of any value at all: Anybody who bothers with more than two pages of Jonathan Lethem is dead to literature and to the English language. For example.

People who take contemporary fiction seriously remind me of the Bob Dylan fans who've desperately hailed each of his last fifteen or twenty shameless vacations in the studio as a triumphant return to form. Who are they trying to kid? And why are they trying so hard?

And consider the piece about the Illinois state fair.

Ann Althouse said...

"You're living in a Golden Age of fiction, nitwits. ... I just finished David Wallace's "Consider the Lobster.""

Ironically, that's one of his nonfiction things. I love David Foster Wallace's nonfiction, but have never gotten into his fiction. I don't read too much fiction. But I'm not trying to run down contemporary fiction, just noting some interesting critique of lad lit. Of course, I haven't read any lad lit. I think the linked article is funny for the reason yetanotherjohn noted.

Do the male writers really read that much? I bet some of them write without reading. You know what Benjamin Disraeli had to say: “When I have the urge to read a good book, I write one." That's a very male attitude, I think.

XWL said...

Real men read books with real plots.

That's why genre fiction, especially SciFi and Mystery continue to get consumed greedily while 'serious' fiction doesn't get noticed far beyond the 'serious' publications and newspapers that attempt to convince folks that 100s of pages of navel gazing are worthy of wrapping one's head around.

(Daniel Drezner's recent post and commenters support my contention, somewhat)

The 'plottiness' of genre fiction is one of the main reasons why English Lit classes don't use them however. A well plotted straight forward story leaves little room for interpretation and discussion.

So the preference against viewing those works as serious gets perpetuated in the academy while the bias for DeLillo and Pynchon wannabes who write dense, inscrutable, and often uninteresting and unreadable prose becomes more and more entrenched.

Jeff said...

I seem to recall reading somewhere that for much of the 18th and 19th century novels as a form were considered feminine.

Hemingway and his crime novel progeny were a break with this legacy.

Can anyone back me up on his?

P. Froward said...

The point about IJ is who cares anyway? If it's good, it's good. If you have standards for "good" other than enjoying it, you're a fraud. Is it bad to be detached? Dunno; maybe lit crits are better at proving negatives than I am.

Show me somebody with unremittingly good taste and I'll show you a fraud who really has no taste of his own at all.


Ann - You may be right about male writers writing without reading. IIRC Hemingway was a Turgenev fan, at least, but he seems to have spent a lot more time shooting lions and whatnot. Then again, what I know of Hemingway is mostly from reading Hemingway, and if he'd written about people curling up with a good book he'd be almost as famous as I am.

Can you write well without reading? Dunno. Maybe you can get by with relatively small doses. Most people who can't write don't read, but then again, most people who do read can't write. I mean, few people read, and far fewer can write worth a damn. I'm not sure the correlation necessarily means much. Because I haven't the faintest idea why some people can write and the rest of us can't.

Palladian said...

"You're in NYC, right? What neighborhood has these characters? Don't tell me you're in Red Hook??
"
Nope, Williamsburg. Absolutely infested with these worthless characters.

I'll reiterate: Real men read and write verse. Give me Shakespeare and Sir Philip Sidney and Spencer and Milton over Hemingway or Joyce (ugh) or Fitzgerald or Updike any day.

About the only non-verse fiction that I read and like is Hawthorne's short stories, Dickens, Twain's non-fiction, and Arthur C. Clarke.

Ann Althouse said...

P.Froward: It may be that writing has more to do with speaking (and thinking). You need a "voice" and an "ear." Reading other people's writing is a pretty indirect way to experience human language.

dick said...

Ann,

I think it depends on who you read. If you are tone deaf about language and the writers you read are also tone deaf about language (and there are a lot of those out there), then reading will not do much for your knowledge of language.

I am no longer much of a writer but when I was taking creative writing back in the dark ages of the late 1950's, I was fairly good at descriptive fiction. Unfortunately I could not write dialogue for beans. I tried, God knows I tried, but it was a lost cause. Just never had the ear for capturing the language. Thus endeth the lit degree. Thank God I was smart enough to realize just how bad I was.

Maxine Weiss said...

Funny, I went on, author, Chris Bohjalian's website to ask him why he thought his main audience was women.....He said something along the lines of "With a title like Midwives.....of course I don't get male readers"....or something like that. Not really answering the question.

As I've stated before, It has nothing to do with men, in general. The fault lies with a complete lack of artistic creativity brought about by the digital revolution.

Peace, Maxine

Palladian said...

Computers don't cause bad writing, Maxine. Bad writers cause bad writing.

Maxine Weiss said...

Where's the incentive to bother making an effort, when everything can be digitally enhanced anyway?

You can just phone it in, and let the whole thing be digitally remastered into the perfect formulaic nonsense.

And, you no that's what's going on.

Art: why bother with oil and canvas when there's printshop and photoshop.

If the printed page becomes obsolete, then so goes oil on canvas. And, everything else for that matter.

We'll just digitally enhance ourselves into a stupor. Amusing ourselves to death, and nobody has to make an effort.

Peace, Maxine

Maxine Weiss said...

There are guy, real guy authors: Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. Irving Stone. Mario Puzo---they all wrote "guy" stories and guy books.

The Jack London books....."Burning Daylight" etc..

Peace, Maxine

Maxine Weiss said...

Everything is polarized now. You can look at the bestseller list and see which gender is reading what. The guys buy and bump up the thriller/suspense novels....and the gals go for romance.

Nobody can write well enough to bridge that gap into literary fiction.

It's either thriller/suspense or romance.

And the digital revolution doesn't encourage anything but that type of formulaic niche "branding".

So, there you have it.

Peace, Maxine

Maxine Weiss said...

Palladian: Do you mean to say that you read Shakespeare with, or without, the Barron's English Translation.

I can't read Shakespeare without the modern English translation.

And, I majored in English.

Peace, Maxine

Balfegor said...

If the printed page becomes obsolete, then so goes oil on canvas. And, everything else for that matter.

I don't think this is a proper comparison. The printing on the page is, after all, merely a symbolic reproduction of the artistic work. You can change the embodiment -- changing the font, for example, or the size of the pages, or the texture of the paper -- and the work is still the same work.

With oil paintings, that's not the case -- the artistic qualities of the painting are there in the particularities of the painter's stroke and technique, in impasto and all that. The physical embodiment of the work is the authoritative work, not just a symbolic representation.

Re: adequacy of photoshop vs. oils

First, I think Adobe is a tool of the Devil! But leaving my narrow fanaticism aside, photoshop is an adequate tool for what people do with it, which is produce strictly 2D images, but computer graphic images, like photo plates in art history books, are a different medium, with a different effect than the original oils. And I don't just mean because the original oils are hanging in a museum or somesuch -- the actual colour quality is different, because in many painting techniques, oils are layered, with underpainting and painting and all that. And this layering gives a certain lustre to the painting (sometimes people talk about "warmth" when considering underpainting for human figures) that is missing in the flat representation. If you look at an Old Dutch Master, say (or a Bouguereau), in a museum, and compare it with a reproduction, there's a noticeable difference in colour depth. In addition, the pigments used aren't always immediately reproducible in digital form.

These are not issues for all paintings -- there are other techniques which translate more directly to the computer screen (even if the pigments aren't perfectly equivalent). But there's a distinct artistic space left for oils even with the advent of digital art.

Maxine Weiss said...

"If you look at an Old Dutch Master, say (or a Bouguereau), in a museum, and compare it with a reproduction, there's a noticeable difference in colour depth."

Who's to say that Printshop, or Adobe won't advance to a level, where you'd be able to have textures and depth on screen.....

And it's the idea of a painting. The painter paints ideas, and those transfer across a variety of media.

I actually think that art and painting makes a far better transfer to digital, than words....if we are talking tactile, and depth sensations.

I don't hold paintings in my hand, they are up on a wall anyway. I walk with books. The inscription, the leatherbound cover, the scented parchment (really?).

I see painting, oil on canvas, and art in general....as far more remote, and therefore better viewed on screen.

The average person cannot own a Picasso anyway. It's not an intensely personal relationship. Art is mainly shared, or you have to go to a museum. But, I can "own" a book. I can have it in the palm of my hand. There's much more of an immediacy to books you can pick up. You can't sort of go "pick up" a Rembrandt or Chagall, and carry it around with you....

I don't think...LOL

We are talking about an intensely personal relationship with a tangible object vs. remote ideas of painting.

Peace, Maxine

Balfegor said...

Who's to say that Printshop, or Adobe won't advance to a level, where you'd be able to have textures and depth on screen.....

And near-perfect resolution. But it won't be a screen anymore, then. And at that point -- such a wonderful point! -- at that point, I would agree that oils could be substituted for by digital reproductions. There will still, of course be the "authenticity" cachet, but that will probably be reflected in price, for those who particularly want to possess the work, much as some people are not content with just any copy of a book, they must have an original first printing!

Anyhow, I do both physical oils and digital sketching/painting, and I have been reading fiction in digital form on desktops and on laptops for over a decade now, as well as doing it the old-fashioned way. When I moved, recently, I brought with me about 400 books (~150 of them Japanese comics, but ~250 real books besides), so I like the physical artifact just fine.

But if I could have them all in a limitlessly reproducible digital format? On a handheld device? I would certainly not have so many books here with me. I might keep a few favoured editions -- my copy of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is very nice, with all the engravings, and my copy of Tennyson not only has engravings but is from the 19th century -- but the rest, my copies of Waugh and of Wodehouse, my histories of Rome and the Raj, my dictionaries, my grammars, my old law textbooks --

All these I would be perfectly happy to see reduced to ones and zeros.

Balfegor said...

The characters in these books are as unmemorable and faceless as the men in the gray flannel suits they hold in such contempt....

Incidentally, does anyone wear flannel suits anymore? Like tweed, it seems a textile whose suiting days have passed.

P. Froward said...

Maxine,

Lots of people thought photography would kill painting too, right? Right. They totally thought that! And look, just look what happened! It. It um... Errr... okay, photography killed painting. Dead as a damn doornail. There's no denying it. Never mind.


Ann,

Reading other people's writing is a pretty indirect way to experience human language.

I'd bet it's the best way to learn to do dialog. That's why dialog is easy: You spend your whole life marinating in it. But you don't generally write description the way you write dialog; that always sounds annoyingly contrived. Ordinary speech calls too much attention to itself: There are colloquialisms, there's more redundant noise than people realize, and so on. Also, sentences have to be shorter and simpler, blah blah blah. Dialog and description are practically different languages. Huck Finn had one voice in the dialog, and another in the narrative. His author was good enough at his craft to slip it past you, but it's unmistakable if you're looking out for it. An ear is certainly necessary, but it's far from sufficient.

Hell, there's quite a lot of non-obvious artifice in plain old dialog dialog, in fiction, if it's done well. You don't just start with a black page and put white-out on all the parts that don't sound like Philip Marlowe.


Balfegor,

It's doing fine. It's a different kind of "flannel". Nobody ever made suits out of flannel as in flannel shirts. Well, nobody who lived to tell about it.

Maxine Weiss said...

I saw a pretty fancy pair of dungarees at my local vintage clothing store!

Peace, Maxine

Balfegor said...

Balfegor,

It's doing fine. It's a different kind of "flannel". Nobody ever made suits out of flannel as in flannel shirts. Well, nobody who lived to tell about it.


As it happens, I myself own a decent flannel suit (from Southwick). But I've never seen anyone else wear a flannel suit. Seersucker, linen, etc -- I've seen that, but never flannel. Or tweed. I know people still make both, but I have not seen them widely worn.

Aspasia M. said...

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Faulkner, Joyce, Jorge Borges, Gogol, Bulgakov and TC Boyle.

In genre fiction there is, of course, Asimov and Heinlein.

Jennifer Cruise (romance writer) teamed up with a male action-adventure writer for their most recent book. They are on a tour together & have a joint blog.

------------------

Wouldn't a flannel suit be awful hot?

I'm from the Pacific Northwest. Flannel, for me, is just too associated with people who cut down trees or grunge rockers.

Aspasia M. said...

Jeff,

There was a lot of worry about the negative effects of girls reading novels in the 18th and 19th century. The fear of seduction was a big theme.

Also - as the publishing industry grew, so to did the number of women writers. (Think of Joe in Alcott's Little Women.)

You may be thinking of this quote:

"America is given over to a d--d mob of scribbling women" complained Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1854, a comment that adds considerable point to Charlotte Brontë's wry remark of four years earlier, "I wish critics would judge me as an author, not as a woman."

Quote from AskOxford.com/worldofwords

The Cranky Insomniac said...

Wow...except for the money, sex and not being in therapy it was just like looking in the mirror!