Sam Lipsyte’s collection Venus Drive— a modern masterpiece, at least as far as writing professors in MFA programs are concerned— opens with a story called “Old Soul,” featuring a lech of a narrator who spends his days alternating between the booths at “Peep City” and “Peeptown” (there’s a difference). The story’s climax comes when he takes a break from ogling sex workers to visit his sister in the hospital, where she lies unconscious, kept alive only by a respirator. “My sister did a snort through her air mask, this noise like everything that had always been my sister was clotted and wet inside her and we might need a tool to scoop it out. I gathered up the covers, slipped my hand under her gown.”
I bring “Old Soul” up because that’s the story I happened to be reading when the Harvey Weinstein report dropped. Over the ensuing weeks, I continued haphazardly through Venus Drive while skeevy man after skeevy man was cut adrift by his employer or constituents, our long-overdue national reckoning with the omnipresence of sexual assault taking its toll on the halls of power. The coincidental timing was somewhere between fortuitous and uncomfortable. Lipsyte’s great subject is the male derelict, and he captures loutish sexuality like few others can.
To be clear: Lipsyte’s stories should in no way be read as depicting things he has done or behavior he endorses. He’s made no claim to his work being autobiographical, and there is little need to eye him with suspicion. I bring his work up only as an example of a deeper problem of appreciating art and literature that the present environment begs. How does the reading of a scene where a creep feels up his comatose sister change when it is sharing mental real estate with notifications pinging your phone about Al Franken’s use of photo-ops as a personal “Peeptown” or Jerry Richardson’s requirement that employees of his football team address him as “Mister?”
It’s a thornier question than the old “separate the art from the artist” conversation. I hope that, after 2017, decent people will have lost whatever inclination they once had to make excuses for the work of sexual abusers like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. But what of artists who have done nothing wrong, but whose work depicts behavior we find despicable? Lipsyte’s stories fall into this category, as do countless others. Indeed, most of the last half century’s most treasured white-male writers (your Updikes, your Roths, your Mailers) were preoccupied with male sexuality, even as they, unlike Lipsyte, examined it uncritically.
A distinction is necessary, then, between male writers who objectify women as a matter of course (like in Roth’s Operation Shylock, when the autobiographical protagonist takes a break from his trip to Israel to, apropos of nothing, have lurid, extra-marital sex with a young woman) and those with the perspective to present entitled male sexuality side-by-side with the damage it causes and the systems of power it serves to propagate. Lipsyte falls into the latter category, as does James Salter (both writers, of course, also share a talent at writing breathtaking, dumbfounding sentences). In Salter’s story “American Express,” a successful lawyer and recent divorcé named Alan meets for dinner with an old friend and spells out his recent dating struggles: “The women he met were too human, he complained… Something was missing in him and women had always done anything to find out what it was. They always would. Perhaps it was simpler, Alan thought. Perhaps nothing was missing.”
Alan’s conclusion that he’s actually fine (and its logical cousin, that it is these women who actually need to adjust their behavior to better suit his needs) is as gross as his complaint about the humanity of women. And Salter’s rendering of him is reflective of a deep immorality. Later in the story, Alan is touring Europe with the same friend, and one night, they take advantage of a young Italian girl they’ve been traveling with. Upon waking, he feels some remorse, but it quickly dissipates. “He was part of that great, unchanging order of those who live by wages” Salter closes the story, “whose world is unlit and who do not realize what is above.”
One hardly need believe in God to understand that Alan is not the hero of this story. Salter renders him as a man whose wealth and achievement has led him to believe that women’s bodies are there for him to do what he wills with, and embittered by the fact that those bodies belong to real, breathing human beings with their own ideas and desires. Alan is distasteful, but if one seeks to understand the full dimension of demented masculinity, he is as crucial to study as Lipsyte’s Old Soul. It many make men like me uncomfortable to read these characters now, to be confronted with the worst of our sex, but that’s only because events have conspired such that we can no longer pretend those men exist only in fiction. As the real-world revelations continue, and yet more masters of the universe are drawn and quartered in the public square, the examinations undertaken by the likes of Lipsyte and Salter will only become more vital to understanding how we got here, and what men need to change about our behavior in order help ensure a more just world for the other half of the species.
Last year, in the interest of transparency (and inspired by the VIDA Count), I put all of the books I reviewed into a spreadsheet and then did a demographic breakdown of the authors who wrote those books. I’ve done the same this year, and here are the results: in 2017, I reviewed 27 books, 14 of which were by men, and 13 by women. 10 of those authors were from North America, while 17 were international (those numbers count the two immigrant authors, Hermione Hoby and Akwaeke Emezi, as from Europe and Africa respectively). Of those 17 international authors, five were from Europe, three from South America, three from sub-Saharan Africa, three from Asia, two from North Africa and the Middle East, and one from the Caribbean. Only one of those authors (Marie NDiaye) is from a minority community in her country of origin. For the North American authors, seven were white, two were Asian-American or Asian-Canadian, and one was black. Two of the North American authors also self-identify as queer. For comparison, here’s the Twitter thread where I ran the numbers for 2016. I’m glad there’s a better geographic balance this year for the international writers covered, but I still have a lot of work to do seeking out and reviewing a wide array of minority and trans and/or gender non-conforming writers.
Thanks for reading and subscribing. You can find me on twitter @KPaoletta, or delayed at Logan airport, waiting for a mechanic to fly in from Baltimore to replace our flight’s windshield wiper.