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writing and wronging

Are substance-abusing, sex warring male writers extinct yet?

mailerIt has not gone unnoticed that the boozy, (or sexoholic, or coke-crazed) novelist---the ‘great' macho writer of eras past and discredited, the kind that socked other men in the face over the right to possess some woman---is a species in trouble, and some of us are experiencing twinges of exterminator's remorse.

Amy Shearn, in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, asks, "Why don't writers get to be barely functional, substance-abusing eccentrics anymore?" noting that like most serious writers today, like her colleagues in a Minnesota U.'s MFA program were "more egghead than cokehead," milquetoasts compared to John Keats, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer and all the drunken, brawling literary studs of yore. Shearn can't envision "today's young turks---Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Safran Foer---hobnobbing with models at Manhattan hotspots as did those fabled eighties bratpackers Jay MacInerney and Bret Easton Ellis." (1)

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Katie Roibret easton ellis and jay MacInerneyphe, in a recent New York Times Book Review, also anxiously contemplates a trend towards risk reduction in literature's lives and works. She cites Kate Millet's essay collection 1968, Sexual Politics, as the cue ball in this historic break. After Millet exposed Western Literature as a propaganda machine for male domination says Roiphe, educated Americans began to scorn works by shamelessly honest male chauvinists. (2)

In a valiant effort to break the enervating spell that male egocentricity can cast upon us all, says Roiphe, post-Millet readers fail to appreciate much vivid humanity (and self-satire) poking through the gaping fly of Twentieth Century misogynist texts.

Back when writers Mailer, Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth and John Updike were young upstarts, they were just emerging from an era of Victorian propriety and censorship. Being honest about forbidden acts and feelings made them giddy with rebellion says Roiphe, and "....the exhilaration, the mischief, the crackling energy was in the prose."

Their passionate love-hate tussle with women was not only a literary subject. Sexohol seems to have been the drug that enabled them to break records in the literary Olympics. Roiphe quotes Mailer:

"Lust exhibits all the attributes of junk," he wrote. "It dominates the mind and other habits, it appropriates loyalties, generalizes character, leaches character out, rides on the fuel of almost any emotional gas - whether hatred, affection, curiosity, even the pressures of boredom - yet it is never definable because it can alter to love or be as suddenly sealed from love."

In efforts to avoid appearingdavid forster wallace "sealed from love," aka woman-haters, Roiphe thinks, subsequent American male writers kicked lust and now practice their Oedipal ambivalence covertly --- with a sly, rueful shrug of self-castration and a cuddling affection towards women that smacks of a refusal to engage.

Roiphe says that feminists haven't "won" their literary battle against misogyny - or at least the kind of furtive fury that springs from men's thwarted feelings towards capricious female objects of desire. Is this something Freud-ish, along the lines that frustrated infant desires for mommy's body and love trickle out as passive rejection whenever blatant expressions of rage have been dammed? Or is this a bit of sociobiology, proposing that polygamous males, attacked by feminists, sneakily learn to play dead in order to lure a larger harem? Neither? Both?

Shearn, more Marx-ish, sees the wussy, abstemious trend among this moment's literary lions as a function of our weak print economy rather than our selfish genes or hobbled egos. Writing pays so poorly now, she says, and has become so dependent on the paperwork and protocols of literature departments, that an ambitious writer of any sex has neither time nor money for intoxicants or acting out. Writers must blog until their carpal tunnels explode while holding three other jobs and applying endlessly for grants, fellowships, workshops, prizes, publication and tenure. For them, unlike for artists and musicians, human fraility no longer pays.

If you buy that today's serious writers have abandoned addictive behavior - which I'm not sure I do -- both explanations are simultaneously credible. But perhaps, at least for readers of the digital age, the macho writer is no longer our avatar of reckless misbehavior because we can now live our vicarious lives of misogynist immoderation virtually and immersively, running over whores and scoring drugs in Grand Theft Auto, punishing Sim mommies and getting drunk with porn stars in our Second Life.

Both men and women today can vicariously experience the exhilaration of being very, very bad boys, tit-biting babies, drunken boats adrift in a sea of sin without either moral consequences or morning-after self-scrutiny. Pixels don't bleed, and they can't write critical essays. And as for the addictions and compulsions of narrative culture's creators, they are no longer on the table. If a couple of game designers, coders or franchise licensers get drunk for real and sock each other in the jaw over some love object they both desire and despise, their public will never know.

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(1) Shearns' droll essay, "The Revenge of the Nerds," isn't available online, but she blogs about it on 2.21.2009, where you can also see her magnificent new baby, and learn about her book, How Far is the Ocean From Here?

(2) For some reason Roiphe short-shrifts Simone de Beauvoir's seminal analysis of culturally embedded biases, The Second Sex. Was this chauvenism of the nationalistic sort on her part?

Note: Yes, the teaser image was of Hemingway.

Lynn Phillips is the author of Self-Loathing for Beginners. She has written (sometimes as "Maggie Cutler") for a variety of publications, from The Nation to T Magazine. more...

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