The Literary Roots of the Incel Movement
Our canon of sad white men’s literature reinforces the idea that male sexual deprivation is a public concern
One month ago yesterday, Alek Minassian drove through a Toronto shopping district in a rented van, killing ten people and injuring sixteen more. Analysis of Minassian’s online activity — where he participated in forums for the involuntarily celibate, or incels — quickly revealed the attack’s motivation: he was avenging himself on the women (apparently all of us) who had rejected him. He declared that with his act of terrorism, the “incel rebellion” had begun — although he was not the first self-described incel to use his sexlessness as an excuse for acts of mass violence.
Though the subsequent rash of media analysis might lead you to think otherwise, none of this is new — not even the term “incel,” which was first coined in 1993 by a queer Canadian woman when she created a website for people who identified as involuntary celibates to share their thoughts and feelings. The incel community that exists today on reddit, 4chan, and incel.me is an inchoate and ever-evolving group, which seems to change shape with every attempt to characterize it. The genealogy of today’s incel grows more complex the more you dig (he is descended from both the aggressively misogynist Pick Up Artist community and the slightly more sympathetic “love-shy” community). What members of all these groups share, of course, is their sense of their own alienation from women and their (almost always deeply misogynistic) conviction that this alienation has negatively affected their lives in myriad profound ways.
The sentiments offered by participants in such forums range from standard misogynist cliche, to violent hatred for women, to deep ambivalence and confusion about all aspects of human sexuality. At best, these communities are desperately sad and at worst — and lately we’ve been seeing them at their worst — incel and related forums rationalize and even celebrate the rape and murder of women, and advocate state mandated “sexual redistribution of women” (the rationale behind which, amazingly, has been echoed by several prominent right-wing thinkers lately).
I am writing this on May 23rd, the fourth anniversary of Elliot Rodger’s Isla Vista spree killing, a set of murders explicitly motivated by the perpetrator’s extreme hatred of women and the men he perceived as more sexually successful than he. As of the time of writing, 10:09 am, there are multiple posts on the front page of incel.me celebrating Rodger as a hero (many more will surely show up throughout the day). Posters are discussing what kind of vanilla latte Rodger would have liked (hot or cold), congratulating each other on the anniversary (which they’re calling “The Supreme Gentleman’s Day” and “The Day of Retribution”), and making playlists of his favorite songs (they call these ’80s pop songs “Elliotcore”). Where did these young men get the idea that male pathos (stereotypically defined by them as sexual frustration) is so pathetic, so worthy of tribute? One possible answer to the question, one we don’t discuss very much, is our culture’s literary history. The incel isn’t just a monstrous birth of our casually cruel and anonymous internet culture. He is also a product of Anglo-American literary culture, which (particularly in the twentieth century) treats the topic of male sexual frustration as if it is of prime importance to us all.
Think of the literature you read in high school. One source of Hamlet’s insanity, those around him find it natural to assume, is his sexual frustration with Ophelia. Multiple characters in the play scheme to bring the two together, hoping that if she puts out he’ll calm the fuck down and not kill everyone. The plots of a number of other “classic” novels, from Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities to The Great Gatsby, are driven by a (white) male character’s frustrated desire with a remote woman. Holden Caulfield’s ramble through New York is punctuated by his obsessive recollections of Jane Gallagher, the girl he respected too much to try to fuck. Tim O’Brien’s collection The Things They Carried lingers on the story of Jimmy Cross and his obsession with a woman named Martha, whom he knew before he was drafted. Cross is depicted as a genuine figure of pathos: a normal, relatable man caught in a terrible position who uses fantasy as a way to manage the horrors of his war experience. He remembers touching Martha’s knee one night, and how she had recoiled. As he recalls this scene, he fantasizes about having “done something brave.” “He should’ve,” he thinks, “carried her up the stairs to her room and tied her to the bed and touched that left knee all night long.” That his fascination with her takes the form of a rape fantasy is later revealed to be doubly significant. It is not just evidence of his resentment towards her for rejecting him, but also, we later learn, proof that he has somehow intuited the history of sexual trauma that lives behind her veneer of disassociation, her eyes which are always “wide open, not afraid, not a virgin’s eyes, just flat and uninvolved.”
I choose The Things They Carried to pick on here because it’s a favorite of mine. I think it’s brilliant, but it offers a prime example of the way our literary culture has long treated rage and aggression as if they are normal features of (white) male sexuality. (The racial component is of course significant here, since the exact opposite has long been true for depictions of black male sexuality, which have been represented as essentially and problematically aggressive.) The literature we choose to teach our children evidences how untroubled we are by this disturbing cliché that rage and a fascination with violation are characteristic features of (again, white) male sexuality. This is of course one of the main points of O’Brien’s beautiful book, but it doesn’t change the fact that as a teenager I had read many fictional accounts of men’s rape fantasies long before I had ever read a literary account from the woman’s perspective of rape, or even of consensual sex. I was trained to accept that male sexual frustration was a serious issue because I read hundreds of pages about it before the age of 20, far more than I read about issues of undoubtedly greater social import, like the legacy of slavery, the alienation of women and people of color from public life, or the violence of the settler colonialism on which the United States was founded. Perhaps these novels even coached me into taking male sexual frustration seriously through a kind of frightful education: look what happens, they seemed to say, when men don’t get what they want.
And these are just the books I read in high school. Don’t even get me started on D.H. Lawrence, Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway, Harold Pinter, Henry Miller, Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, Norman Mailer, Bret Easton Ellis, or the patron saint of elevating male bullshit: David Foster Wallace. (Don’t @ me; I don’t care.) Though many of these authors are justly celebrated, they have all repeatedly treated male sexual frustration as if it deserves pride of place among the great issues of Life. Lolita even succeeds in conjuring sympathy for the desires of a pedophile. (Gregor von Rezzori famously called it “the only convincing love story of our century” in Vanity Fair, a quotation which has long been emblazoned on the cover of the Vintage edition of the novel.) By contrast, novels of women’s frustration with society — not sex — like those of Edith Wharton and Kate Chopin, are classed as special interest pieces: feminist fiction, or women’s fiction, not Great American Novels.
This all becomes even more ironic when we consider the history — not literary, but real — of identifying women’s sexual frustration as the psychological problem of hysteria. For hundreds of years, women were literally committed because of a “disease” that male doctors attributed to a handful of sexual causes: women with hysteria were either not getting fucked enough, had been fucked by the wrong people, had wanted to fuck the wrong people, or had just plain wanted to fuck too much. It’s hardly an insight to say that men have been telling women about how they should behave sexually forever, and that usually their instructions are geared to benefit their own pleasure or politics. That today’s most visible forms of misogyny, however, reverse the traditional rationale about female sexuality — it’s not that we need to get fucked more for our own good, but for the good of a nation plagued by mass shootings perpetrated by lonely men — just goes to show that this kind of misogyny cuts across political and ideological categories. I think our most celebrated and most taught literature also shows that. After revisiting the books that I was first introduced to as “great novels,” I see that many of them rehearse and even promote the idea that male sexual suffering (often represented by deprivation) is a public concern, while female sexual suffering (often represented by trauma) is a private, psychological issue. In literature, time and again, men — both writers and characters — elevate their pathos by revealing it. By contrast, female pathos marks a text as niche, as “confessional,” as minor.
This is more extreme version of a broader phenomenon described by Rebecca Solnit (among others): “A book without women is often said to be about humanity but a book with women in the foreground is a woman’s book.” This is the same logic that allows us to unreflectively give teenagers The Catcher in the Rye instead of The Bell Jar, because Salinger’s book seems to have universal appeal, while Plath’s is an account of pathology (when in reality, of course, both books tackle the protagonist’s mental illness). It is the same logic that meant I wasn’t exposed to the novels of Alice Walker, Margaret Atwood, Marilynne Robinson, or Toni Morrison until college. It is the same logic that recently allowed Gay Talese to argue publicly that he had not been influenced by any female writers (as if that’s possible). In short, literary culture has long been complicit in upholding the structures by which we imagine men to be more worthy of attention and thus more human.
In both life and literature, we lock up women who are dangerously sexually frustrated for the (supposed) good of themselves and the good of the community, but we ask the community to adapt to and accommodate male sexual suffering. We regularly ask teenage girls to read books in which characters degrade women, expecting them to understand that the book’s other merits outweigh its misogyny. To set such an expectation and not consider its effect on young woman is foolish and hypocritical; we rarely expect young men to do the same, and hardy ever expect young white men to read extensively in traditions where their identities aren’t represented or are degraded. We need to reflect on the way the literature we celebrate supports the idea that women who are sexually frustrated create problems for themselves, while men in the same situation create problems for the world. Though the links are subtle, our celebration of a canon of sad white boy literature affects the way we think, and how much tolerance we offer to men like Alek Minassian and Elliot Rodger.
We have been told recently that there is a crisis in masculinity in America, and that we should be worried about it. We have been subjected to ideologues using this “crisis” as impetus to consider radically regressive ideas about sexuality. We can counteract this fearmongering by remembering the misogyny of the canon, which reveals to us that we have always worried about male sexual frustration more than we need to (or at least, more than we worry about more widely devastating social issues). We have always treated the alienation of men as if it deserved thousands of pages of analysis, perhaps because we feared it had the power to endanger us all. (Because, as Margaret Atwood famously put it, “men worry that women will laugh at them, and women worry that men will kill them.”) Reassessing the canon allows us to see that one of the reasons why “he was a lonely virgin” sounds like reasonable justification to us for a spree killing is that we have long valorized male isolation. Our literary canon treats such desire as if it is a (if not the) central topic in the lives of white men. It treats the frustration of male desire as if it merits exploration time and again. Maybe people like Jordan Peterson and Ross Douthat (two mainstream writers who have recently entertained the possibility that society would benefit from “sex redistribution”) wouldn’t think male isolation was a privileged social problem (rather than an individual psychological problem) if our literary culture didn’t also support that idea. Maybe Donald Trump wouldn’t have won the presidency in a country that didn’t worry so much about what white men think all the time.
I’m not saying that we need to divest entirely from the mid-century authors like Pinter, Bellow, Updike, and Roth who have so shaped American literary culture (though I’d personally be cool with letting Hemingway, Ellis, and Wallace drift into obscurity). But I do think it’s time to be done with this particular story, which treats white male rage as a ceaseless source of interest. Perhaps we already are done with this story, and instead of representing a generation-wide crisis in masculinity, the incels are just the dudes who haven’t gotten over the fact that we’ve gotten over them. In that case, we might view their terrorism (or even the affront to civil rights represented by Trump’s win) not as the beginning of an uprising but as the last gasps of a defeated army.
I’m not naive enough to think that we will ever read or write misogyny out of existence, but I hope that more of us (especially men) will start reading more widely, start balancing books like American Psycho with books like Chris Krauss’s equally nimble satire of American life, I Love Dick. If I am right that there are subtle but real connections between mainstream literary structural misogyny and violent subcultures like that of the incel, then perhaps our lives actually depend on it.