20 Authors I Don’t Have to Read Because I’ve Dated Men for 16 Years
If you’ve spent enough time around dudes, you’ve BASICALLY read these
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Certain writers — or artists, or film-makers, etc.— are so embedded into their particular cultures that one doesn’t need to have consumed their work in order to understand its impact. In particular, there are a bunch of white male authors it is possible to just about forget you haven’t read if you’ve dated the type of dudes you meet at an n+1 party. Certain books are so central to this type of dude that getting through a relationship — or even a few dates—constitutes the same level of knowledge of these authors that one might get from actually reading them, and gives you just as much right to hard-earned lifelong knowledge about their books, knowledge that need not ever be fact-checked by actually reading the books themselves (unless, for some reason, you really want to). Presented below, 20 authors on whose work I have involuntarily ended up with a strong opinion due to my unfortunate heterosexuality.
1. Philip Roth: I’ve never read any of Philip Roth’s books, but I have dated enough men who have that I can carry on a decent small-talk conversation about why I don’t like them. (If you would like to achieve this without dating men, you could just read a description of one of Roth’s books, in particular the one in which a man is transformed into a boob). Roth and I live in the same neighborhood, and a friend of mine once ran into him in the local pharmacy, where he was buying hemorrhoid cream or Cialis or something equally embarrassing, and glared at my friend for noticing him. Telling this story, I always imagine Roth holding a box that just says BAD DICK CREAM.
2. Kurt Vonnegut: Honestly, I feel pretty guilty that I’ve never finished a Kurt Vonnegut novel, and I’m sure the thing I say where I call him “the manic pixie dream girl of American literature” is probably wrong, but I’m not gonna stop saying it. Even if it isn’t an accurate description of Vonnegut himself, I stand by it absolutely, and in perpetuity, as a description of every single dude with a tattered copy of Breakfast of Champions on his nightstand.
3. Tom Robbins: On the other hand, I feel pretty guilty that I have ever read any Tom Robbins books.
4. Arthur Miller: I’m sorry about your dad.
5. Jonathan Franzen: Anyone who really, sincerely loves Franzen’s writing has also probably really, sincerely told someone that “learn to code” was the solution to all their problems. The Corrections also contributed to the obsession with the literal and figurative “big book,” in which the size and weight of a novel directly equals its importance, a concept applied almost exclusively to novels by men.
6. Jonathan Safran Foer: I think the general opinion is that the most Jonathan Jonathan, the Ur-Jonathan, is Franzen, but bear with me here, because it’s actually Foer. Foer is the most successful of the Jonathans, in financial terms, and his personal life is a like a movie about the Brooklyn book world created by the Sex and the City writers’ room. The only thing I know about his recent prose is that scene about the doorknob, which made me unable to have sex for a week after I read a review that excerpted it, which I guess is technically an example of “impactful” writing.
7. J.D. Salinger: I’ve never read Salinger because I suspect that his books are at least 30% descriptions of ways in which women can be small, but I have read the best thing he ever (inadvertently) produced, which is this tweet. A lot of wonderful people love Salinger, but so do a lot of people whose job seems to be staging their meals on Instagram.
8. Chuck Palahniuk: Fight clubs aren’t real, you aren’t in one. (The less flippant thing I have to say is that the horror of the human body is a deeply important and nearly inexhaustible topic for literature, but it is close to impossible to find a white, male, famous writer whose writing on this subject is anything but a thinly disguised demonstration of violent misogyny, and maybe you should read Angela Carter or Carmen Maria Machado instead.)
9. Charles Bukowski: Alcoholism is a disease, not a personality.
10. John Updike: I’m sure that short story was very sad but also you have never had to have a job.
11. Bret Easton Ellis: I don’t like cocaine which is great because it means I have mostly avoided the people who want to sincerely talk about Bret Easton Ellis. A favorite of dudes hoping their sociopathy will be mistaken for genius; a more obvious favorite of dudes who quit their MFA a year in to go to a second-tier business school. A super-favorite of a guy who doesn’t mention his real estate license is how he actually makes money until you’ve known him for a couple months.
12. Ayn Rand: I’m sorry about your start-up.
13. Jack Kerouac: One of the greatest things about getting older is that nobody has tried to talk to me about Jack Kerouac in at least five years.
14. Thomas Pynchon: I’m sorry about your unfinished novel. (I actually love Pynchon and this burn is very self-directed).
15. Norman Mailer: The favorite author of every guy who loves to talk about bar fights but has never been in one.
16. Tom Wolfe: The favorite author of every man with an unfinished novel and a “writing outfit.”
17. Martin Amis: The favorite author of every dude who hates women but loves telling people about the year* he lived* in London. (*three months) (*studied abroad)
18. Donald Barthelme: Barthelme is a beautiful, strange, important writer beloved by dudes who will interrupt two out of every three sentences you say to them.
19. David Foster Wallace: A list like this wouldn’t be complete without DFW, but at the same time his inclusion feels disingenuous, because when it comes to Wallace, I am the literary bro cornering you at a party to ask if you’ve read him and why not. I love DFW’s work in the same over-personal obsessive way this list is meant to mock. Wallace is also an author whose body of work defies the kind of easy summary that can be gleaned from listening to a dude talk at a party about his favorite writer, or applied independent of actual engagement with the writing. I came to his work on my own without the suggestion of any dude, and I’ve probably rhapsodised obnoxiously about his work to most everyone I’ve dated since then. Furthermore, the circumstances of his death render pretty much all of jokes I could make here distasteful. In a better world, DFW would still be alive and we’d all gleefully roast dudes who suddenly start wearing a sweaty bandana to their undergraduate creative writing classes for no reason. The problem with dudes who love DFW, though — not all of them, certainly, but too many of them — is that they miss the lesson in his work that’s most useful to the type of person — like these dudes, and like myself — who tends toward hero-worship of authors they admire. The things that dudes who aggressively love DFW tend to imitate in DFW’s life and work are the very things that are meant to be openly foolish, interrogative rather than proud, at once offering levity and intense self-skewering criticism. That this enormous vulnerability has been either utterly elided or turned toxic by any of his most fervent fans doesn’t come close to being the greatest tragedy regarding the author, but it’s still immensely regrettable. In unpopular opinions, however, I still think “Big Red Son” is the best essay he ever wrote about America, and I wish he had lived long enough to revise a Large Adult Son joke into it.
20. Ernest Hemingway: The only truly feminist thing I have ever done is never finishing a Hemingway novel.