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Nick Hornby vs. Danielle Steele

May 26th, 2006 · 4 Comments

So, this Chronicle of Higher Ed piece by Michael Kimmel on “guy lit” started off as a promising deflation of that curious genre of fiction—think High Fidelity or Indecision—populated by 30-something slacker manchildren who have bundles of witticisms where a personality is supposed to be. Or, rather, have nothing but personality—personas without persons behind them.

I had some quibbles, mind you: I liked the movie High Fidelity well enough (never read the book), and the “transformation” Jon Cusack’s Rob Gordon undergoes at the end didn’t strike me as particularly inauthentic. I think it misses the point to fault it for being a tweak in his worldview, a first belated step toward maturation, rather than some kind of Road-to-Damascus metamorphosis. And, not having read most of the books the author’s discussing, I wonder whether in at least some cases he isn’t falling into the same error as critics who attacked Nabakov or Camus because it hadn’t occured to them that maybe Humbert Humbert and Meursault weren’t being offered up as role models. (Kimmel starts down this road when he notes that one of his examples, “written in the second person, is as much admonishing as admiring”–but doesn’t pursue the thought.)

Then, however, we get this:

And that may be guy lit’s biggest problem: Its readers are unlikely to resemble the guys the books are ostensibly about. As long as the antiheroes stay stuck, and the transformative trajectory is either insincere, as in Kunkel’s Indecision, or nonexistent, as in Smith’s Love Monkey, these writers will miss their largest potential audience. For it is women who buy the most books, and what women seem to want is for men to be capable of changing (and to know that a woman’s love can change them)….Sales of these books have been even more sluggish than the novels’ protagonists….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.

This actually manages, in impressively little space, to be simultaneously stupid and offensive, and in entirely different ways. The “stupid” part is that what had been rolling along, however unevenly, as a literary critique weirdly morphs into marketing advice, as though these poor confused authors had gotten into literary fiction with the ambition of moving a lot of units but can’t figure out how to go about it right. I couldn’t help but think of the Simpsons episode where Homer persuades Mel Gibson to remake Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with a bloody fight scene at the climax.

The “offensive” part is the (related) notion that the modal female audience for these books is going to enjoy them (or not) at the level of a Harlequin romance, with the male characters serving chiefly as objects of romantic affection. And the prerequisite for that affection, apparently, is being succeptible to the redemptive power of a good woman’s love. I’d have thought (speaking of prerequisites) that they threshed that sort of condescending shit out of you as a condition of having a seat in the SUNY sociology department.

Tags: Language and Literature



4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 joanne mcneil // May 26, 2006 at 10:08 pm

    Hey! Your ellipses edits out the best part of that article — the Laura Miller quote: “If female readers allowed themselves to believe that most straight men spend their time holding conversations with their penises, watching the Cartoon Network, fiddling with their rotisserie baseball teams, and contemplating the fine art of passing gas on subway trains, romance ââ?¬â? and perhaps even human reproduction itself ââ?¬â? would grind to a halt.”

    Ok, he states it dumbly, but the point is sound: no gal wants to read the narrative by the kind of slob that oggles her in bars (unless, of course. by some magic he sees the error of his boorish ways.) It’s not that they are unattractive so much as they are not interesting. Growth involves conflict; something none of these writers bother to develop.

    He should have stricken the parenthetical and added “fiction” after “men don’t read.”

  • 2 eliza rae mahony // May 29, 2006 at 1:30 pm

    another small flaw in the argument – holden caulfield is a jerk. if you read the book as an adolescent, you tend to identify with him (‘yeah! the world isfull of phonies!’), but if you read it as an adult (as i recently did) you are likely tend to find him as insufferable as does carl luce, the poor columbia student who meets him for a drink. this is the genius of the novel, of course, and highlights the point you raised above, ie. that the first thing a reader should do when confronted with a first person narrator is the question just how reliable that narrator is.

  • 3 Jeff in Texas // Jun 1, 2006 at 11:12 am

    The “offensive” part is a little offensive, but it is a fact that when my wife finishes reading a Hornby book or others of the genre (which I have usually read first, laughing my ass off all the way through it and telling her how great it is), she almost always says something along the lines of “I like it; but what is the point, really?” And I end up responding, “well, it’s the characters you know; there is no point; that’s the point” or something equally enlightening. They really are guy novels I guess.

  • 4 Kelly // Jun 3, 2006 at 4:06 pm

    I’m not so sure these are guy novels. Not all of them, anyway — I absolutely loved Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity.” The American imitators, or whatever they are, don’t sound nearly as appealing, though.

    I think I’m with Joanne on this, but I’d take it further. It’s not just women who don’t want to read these books — it’s the world at large, as can be seen by the books’ poor sales. Who wants to read what sounds basically like a long interior monologue by a bored and boring slacker? Most of us can experience that every day.