Every year in our post-recession world, we seem to go through a familiar literary exercise: A successful, well-respected, white male author steps forward to air his money woes, a tale of kept-up appearances and secretly abysmal finances. He is, he says implicitly or outright, speaking for all of us.
The latest messenger? Critic and Hollywood historian Neal Gabler, who details his financial agonies in the May issue of the Atlantic. Once he was riding high—taking over for Siskel and Ebert on the show Sneak Previews, selling the movie rights to one of his books for enough to cover a down payment for a home in the Hamptons. Now? He’s still in that house but can’t afford to take a vacation or sometimes even buy food.
Gabler, he writes, is all of us—or at least 47 percent of us. “I knew that I wouldn’t have $400 in an emergency,” he writes, referencing the now-well-known stat that nearly half of us say we couldn’t come up with that sum if we tried. “What I hadn’t known, couldn’t have conceived, was that so many other Americans wouldn’t have the money available to them, either.”
These tales are forever a thrilling read! As I write, Gabler’s piece is the most popular piece at the Atlantic, with more than 2,000 comments. No wonder. Many of us are in financial trouble and are too ashamed to speak about it. It’s easy to identify with Gabler’s woes, especially if your own upper-middle-class life feels crunched. Combine that with the unyielding popularity of financial rubbernecking (as any personal finance writer can tell you) and you have internet gold.
Gabler’s essay is the latest example of the long-standing genre that I like to call all the sad, broke, literary men. It almost always presents a personal anecdote as an emblem of broader woes, holding up the author as a symbol of our seemingly forever-contracting middle-income economy. But all too often, it is simply a disguised narrative of privilege.
It begins in 1998 with Vince Passaro’s Harper’s essay “Who’ll Stop the Drain,” in which he recounted, down to the very last cent, exactly how he and his wife managed to accumulate about $63,000 in debt while renting in New York City. It established the tropes of the genre. The debt mounted, not on rich-people luxuries but on day-to-day purchases, school for the children, a night out at a bar here, a movie there. “The dunning letters and even some of the calls lately have taken on a new tone, one that indicates the credit companies’ recognition that there is a big problem out there, and not just with the Passaros,” the essay went, aligning the author’s life-beyond-his-means with all of our financial misadventures.
But the Great Recession sent the broke-literary-man form into overdrive. Now there’s New York Times economics reporter Edmond Andrews’ 2009 memoir Busted, about how he convinced himself, in the wake of a financially devastating divorce followed by a quick remarriage to a high school sweetheart, to buy a home with dodgy financing. Financial journalist Joe Nocera confessed in 2012 to having little in the way of retirement savings. Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter William McPherson wrote in 2014 about quitting a job in his early 50s to travel the world, freelance, and—extra oof—invest in AOL. He reported he now lives in subsidized housing, dependent on a Social Security check and small pension. Critic Lee Siegel took to the op-ed page of the New York Times last year to explain how he skipped out on his student loans.
Gabler’s piece checks all the boxes. Many of us, Gabler points out, are on a downward trajectory. He elaborates on everything from the falling pay scales in journalism (true!) to the high cost of child care and college (also true!) to Americans’ combined inability and unwillingness to save as much as they should (sadly true, too!).
Then there are the personal details. Bad luck—a failure to sell a New York City co-op in a timely fashion, a publisher that sued Gabler for the return of a book advance after he missed a deadline. But there are also shortsighted decisions. Emptying out a retirement account to pay for a daughter’s wedding? Punting on a tax bill for a book advance? Gabler claims he did it so he’d have enough money to actually complete the book. I don’t believe there are 10 people in the United States who couldn’t tell you that would end badly.
There is a female equivalent of this genre, of course, though those tales are usually less about economics and more about self-empowerment. The narrator surrenders control of her money to someone, usually a man, who doesn’t, in the end, act in her best interests. In this case, the writer is both deluded and incapacitated. She willingly and thrillingly loses control of the purse. “I couldn’t hand over the checkbook fast enough,” wrote the late Liz Perle in Money: A Memoir. Or take Innocent Spouse, the tale of Washington restaurateur and journalist Carol Joynt, who discovered after her husband suddenly died that he—and she—owed the IRS about $3 million. There’s even a Bernie-Madoff-done-me-wrong subgenre, with such entries as the former Self editor Alexandra Penney’s The Bag Lady Papers and self-help guru Geneen Roth’s Lost and Found.
Even the exceptions to the genre prove the rule, like Meghan Daum’s excellent “My Misspent Youth,” published in the New Yorker a year after Passaro wrote his Harper’s confessional. Daum lost control of her purse not to a man but to the romance of being a writer in New York City, which she came to see as a rich person’s game. She seized control by relocating to Lincoln, Nebraska, where, subsequent writing reveals, she did indeed pay down her outstanding bills. (She’s now back in New York City.)
The sad, broke, literary male trajectory, however, is different. Rather than cleaning up their financial messes, these men seem to wallow in them. Gabler claims financial ignorance and illiteracy, but it’s more than that. He’s all too aware of the money going out, and even works with a financial counselor. Like most examples of the form, his essay is a mix of bravado, self-abnegation, and regret, with a heavy dose of economic analysis tossed in. “What so many of us have been suffering for so many years may just seem like a rough patch,” he writes. “But it is far more likely to be our lives.”
True! But for our sad, broke, literary men, it doesn’t have to be that way. This is, for the most part, an extremely privileged crowd. The writers, almost despite themselves, still can’t quite stop boasting—about their status, about their buys. Private schools and high-end suburban school districts almost always feature. So do homes in exclusive neighborhoods. Almost no one is writing these tales from Dubuque, Iowa. (Novelist and memoirist Neal Pollack offers a rare and welcome exception, writing bracingly about his Hollywood implosion after retreating to significantly less costly but still hip Austin, Texas.) Even Gabler—finally—cops to it toward the end of the piece. “And let me be clear that I am not crying over my plight,” he writes. “I have it a lot better than many, probably most Americans.”
Which brings me to the delusion at the heart of Gabler’s piece, which is strangely reticent about the actual dollars and cents of it all. The Hamptons? East Hampton? The median home value in Gabler’s town is more than $1 million. OK, true, he says it’s unlikely he could sell the house for more than what he owes on it. That implies at least one refinancing, with considerable sums drained from the home. That was easy enough to do in the years before the Great Recession. Gabler almost certainly blew through a heck of a lot more money than the typical American who can’t come up with $400.
Besides, anyone who knows anything about the Hamptons knows Gabler can almost certainly rent out his home during the summer months for thousands of dollars a week. No kidding he’s got it a lot better than “many, probably most Americans.” Most Americans, broke or not, don’t have those kinds of assets.
Don’t get me wrong. This shouldn’t suggest Gabler’s not courageous to share what he did. The shame and silence surrounding money in our culture is intense; the need to keep up appearances almost as much so. In addition, the plight of the middle-age journalist is all too real, as Dale Maharidge pointed out last month in the Nation. But Gabler’s particular circumstances demonstrate the blindness to class at the heart of this particular personal-finance genre, even if he protests that he’s aware of it. It’s one thing to be broke; it’s another to be broke while apparently writing from a home that could probably sell for six figures. If you’re in any doubt about this point, pick up a copy of Matthew Desmond’s new book Evicted and read about what happens to people who really can’t come up with $400 when they’re in a spot of trouble. In short: They end up in homeless shelters or in seriously substandard housing, not less-than-properly-repaired homes in exclusive summer communities favored by Wall Street bankers and Hollywood celebrities. Or they feature in another article in the May issue of the Atlantic, the much-less-talked-about look at the payday-loan industry.
We could all stand to hear more about men and women who are evicted from their apartments and have nowhere to go—which we sometimes do, but rarely from their own voices. When the only people writing magisterial essays about their empty wallets are sad, broke, literary men, it’s easy to conflate the woes of the chattering class—which are real—with the financial firestorm facing the truly poverty-struck, not to mention the pressures felt daily by the increasingly squeezed middle class.
So, yes, we all make financial mistakes, we all experience bursts of good luck and bad luck. Budgeting, as I wrote last year, is all but impossible for most of us. Incomes vary and so do expenses. As the gig economy grows, more and more soon-to-be-former middle-class people are living the lives of freelancers, the choice and the resources having built up in more prosperous days. Most of those stories don’t anchor buzzy magazine articles. But most of us can’t just write, right?