Sensitive Literary Man: Still a Cad

A column about life, culture, and politics.
July 12 2013 6:25 AM

Sensitive Literary Man

Adelle Waldman’s new novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., perfectly captures the type.

A male writer.
One imagines that the new literary man—so sensitive, so politically attuned, so enlightened by his liberal education, so carefully empathetic—would have evolved past the nakedly swaggering desires of Roth and Bellow

Photo by Ammentorp Photography/Thinkstock

Also in Slate, L.V. Anderson reviews The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. and finds the women in the novel just as baffling and unlikable as the men.

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

We have lately heard ad infinitum the new sensitive literary man’s account of his life and times (see Ben Kunkel or Keith Gessen); what we haven’t yet heard enough of is the smart literary woman’s view of him. With Adelle Waldman’s funny, provocative satire, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., we have a valuable new anthropology of the type.

In a debut novel told from his point of view, Waldman deftly skewers the new literary man, the bookish, ambitious, N+1ish young man, with his stylish torment, his self-seriousness, his dangerous admixture of grandiosity and insecurity, and old fashioned condescension toward women gussied up as sensitivity, his maddening irony, his very specific way of treating people badly while worrying about liberal politics. When we meet him Nate is talking about “his commodification of conscience essay” at a dinner party thrown in the Brooklyn apartment of his staggeringly beautiful ex-girlfriend.

In that scene and others, Waldman anatomizes with enormous acuity the very particular variety of vanity that exists in men like Nate, a fragility combined with narcissism, a great ranging insecurity coupled with an almost unbearable arrogance that wreaks havoc on intimate life, especially for a woman who dares to challenge him.

It is admittedly a very narrow and weirdly provincial universe Waldman is so fiercely and effectively exposing; a universe of aspiring writers, novelists, and contributors to highbrow magazines who live in certain neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Manhattan, and went to certain schools. In a delicately disdainful assessment of Keith Gessen’s celebrated novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, Andrew O’Hagan wrote, “There must, after all, be a way of life in which literary men are not enslaved to the sad business of always having to do better than ‘the people they went to college with.’ ”

Waldman goes deeply into the swirlingly complex contradictions of the sensitive literary man’s relationship with the women that surround him. Nate self-consciously analyzes his treatment of women, and the self-consciousness is itself maddening, yet alluring. He interrogates whether he treats women badly even as he treats them badly. (“Ethical people don’t take advantage of other’s people stupidity; that’s like being a slumlord or a price gouger. And treading on weakness is exactly what dating felt like, with so many of these women—with their wide-open hopefulness, their hunger for connection”).

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He thinks of his slightly too intelligent love interest, Hannah: “She was nearly as well read as Jason and Peter and even Nate himself. (To be honest, that surprised him.)”  And “It flashed through Nate’s mind that her position wasn’t very feminine … He felt intuitively that she was paraphrasing someone else (a professor? Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature?) and that someone was a man.” And, “If Hannah had been obviously hot, he was pretty sure he would have given her more thought before the other night.”

The novel’s clever indictment of Nate is just human enough that he is, with all of  his irritating qualities, occasionally sympathetic. He is painfully narcissistic, and yet there is in the midst of all of his grasping aspiration a certain level of charm. We can just about see how the smart character, Hannah, falls for him, even as we wish she would move out of claustrophobic Williamsburg, and run off to a farm somewhere, or some distant European city, where she will meet a man who can straightforwardly admire or appreciate her (just as we wish for Waldman a broader, less incestuous world to exercise her considerable literary talents).

The frustrating fact about this archetype is that he knows he should be nicer to women, but he is not in fact that nice, or rather his niceness cloaks a condescension so exquisite, so politically masked, so elaborately and artfully refined in a lot of pretty talk, that it barely makes itself known. The smart women around him may be frustrated by the feeling that they are not quite taken seriously, but he is wily, intelligent, resourceful in his condescension; his secret, and in fact very old fashioned writerly yearning for a fan, an admirer, an acolyte, a muse, a woman very much not his equal intellectually, a retrograde adorer, with just enough education or intelligence to be a viable admirer, but not too much to be challenging is, well, hidden.

In Keith Gessen’s book, he writes of an ideal literary playmate: Aside from being dazzlingly beautiful, “She was younger than I was, by a lot, and she still worshipped, or so she told me and I had no cause to disbelieve her, the life of the mind …. Gwyn was quiet and studious in person … but wrote sharp, affectionate emails from work and sometimes, or at least often enough laughed at my jokes when we were home alone in bed together or walking down the street together holding hands. She was only a year out of college, and the difference in our ages seemed a scandal to me, at first, but I got over it. … Gwyn was filled with bright hope for the future and also uncertainty, of course, as to what would become of her and who she really was. (She kept asking me.)”

One imagines that the new literary man—so sensitive, so politically attuned, so enlightened by his liberal education, so carefully empathetic—would have evolved past the nakedly swaggering desires of Roth and Bellow; one imagines that he would be seeking in a romantic partner an equal, a challenge, but this paradox is what Waldman captures so beautifully, the unchanging desire of the sensitive literary man for pure, untrammeled affirmation. The truth is he generally has no more space for a gifted or threatening female mind than his counterpart from 50 years ago—he just hides that fact in layers of words. Which is why you can still go to a literary party in New York and see novelists in their mid-50s with their adoring female students, or male writers escaping to important literary retreats to write their magnum opus while their writer wives stay home to take care of small children, or why the literary culture exudes a sexism more subtle or double-talking than in, say, the ’60s, but no less vibrant for all that.  

After reading Waldman’s excellent funny novel, this particular piece of advice from the poet W. H. Auden floats to mind: “When a man starts writing love poems, one thing is certain: He is not writing about his love but himself; she should be suspicious.”