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.