Elaine Blair has a fantastic article in the current issue of The New York Review of Books (July 12, 2012) about how the fictional trend of oafish male protagonists has evolved from the work of hoary giants such as Philip Roth and John Updike through the work of present-day writers such as Gary Shteyngart and Jonathan Franzen. She points out that, while female readers in the 1960s were willing to read their sexist contemporaries because that’s what one did in order to keep up with the intellectual Joneses, female readers today (who comprise a much larger proportion of fiction readers than they did in the 1960s because all guys want to do now is play video games) are much less willing to put up with men’s misogynist shenanigans, fictional or otherwise. Blair posits that contemporary male authors are aware of this (logical) attitude, and as a result make their male characters so ridiculously pathetic that they are impossible to hate; one just feels sorry for them instead. As a result, maybe female readers will read their books. She shows, though, that this trend is just sexist pandering which leads to a lot of uninteresting novels.
I fully agree with this critique. Blair quotes a David Foster Wallace essay in which he recounts an instance of one of his female friends calling Updike “Just a penis with a thesaurus.” This description is spot on… but damn, that penis sure knows how to get the most out of that thesaurus. I have to admit that I like Updike, and I love Roth (and Wallace, and Franzen). They are my guilty pleasures. I enjoy their writing because I am their intended audience, no matter how much they try to attract female readers. I can’t imagine women enjoying their male characters because I don’t enjoy them either. But I appreciate their truthfulness, and their beautiful use of language.
This raises the question, though, of whether literature that is merely valuable for its formal and/or aesthetic qualities is worthwhile. To read for fun, maybe, but I don’t assign these authors in my classes because they are so off-putting to women. The ideal texts to teach are those which are both aesthetically beautiful and politically engaging–Toni Morrison, Samuel R. Delany, Don DeLillo, and the like.