Literary advice for men: Do I have to read my friend’s novel?

A Gentleman’s Reading List

A Gentleman’s Reading List

Answers for modern men.
July 17 2013 2:32 PM

Do I Have to Read My Friend’s Novel?

What should a gentleman read instead?

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An Endorsement of Books Collecting Short Pieces

Who does not love a snack pack of puddings or a mixed six of beer? Hemingway and Updike each did their best writing in short stories, and Saul Bellow's Collected Stories provides an excellent introduction to his work. Hunter S. Thompson's most lucid work is found in his letters, in among the missives where he tries on personae, relieves himself of unmasked confessions, and submits meticulous reports tallying demented expenses.

An Endorsement of Short Books Written by Ladies

Ladies are interesting, especially Penelope Fitzgerald, who wrote historical novels like gorgeous presents, conjuring the past with intense presence and immense immediacy. There is something for everyone in Human Voices, set at the BBC during the Blitz, with its international politics, intraoffice romances, and offhand engagements of Orwell: "Broadcasting House was in fact dedicated to the strangest project of the war, or of any war, that is, telling the truth." 

If you are in the market for a semiautobiographical first novel offering the diametrical opposite of the copious loathsomeness that phrase implies, try Andrea Lee's Sarah Phillips. If you are digging the spooky anomie of the new Tao Lin book, try Renata Adler's Speedboat, a scalpel etching of the distorted city night. And if you want to trip the heavy, high-modern fantastic of foxy diction and fancy syntax, Djuna Barnes'  Nightwood is your new jam.  

An Endorsement of a Short Book Written by a Shorter Gentleman

Norman Mailer was about 5 feet 4 inches, and his particular way of carrying his body and soul—his rocket ambition to punch up into the pantheon—comes through best in The Prisoner of Sex. You can enjoy the book thoroughly without agreeing with everything Mailer has to say about Kate Millett, Germaine Greer, and feminism; indeed, if you were to silently agree with half of it, in 2013, the thought police would take you away. But there are a few subtle observations in here, and many rumbles of bluster. Mailer (the writer) gives us Mailer (the character) at his largest.


An Endorsement of a Short Book Written By a Shorter Lady

"It is farce—but farce full of shrewd observation," said H.L. Mencken, who would have known better than anyone, as he was the opportunist under observation. I don't know whether Mencken—who was addled by serious stroke by the time Howard Hawks' film adaptation of the book appeared—ever saw Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei Lee, but I know he would have liked to hear her. The Sage of Baltimore was a sucker for a certain voice: "When a woman has a low-pitched and soft voice, with a good clang-tint, she is free to consume my wealth and waste my time whenever the spirit moves her."

An Endorsement of a Short Book Collecting Short Pieces by a Shorter Lady

Slouching Towards Bethlehem
By Joan Didion, 5 feet, when slouching

"Perfect essays abound in this world—almost every one of Joan Didion’s fits the category," says Zadie Smith, overstating the case only slightly. Smith, incidentally, represents the over-under for determining the height of lady writers, having once described herself to this interviewer as "normal girl height."


Dear Gentleman Scholar,

An acquaintance just wrote a novel. Do I have to read it?

No. One cannot just go around reading the books of friends and acquaintances. The exceptions to this rule are few and obvious—looking at a draft to give constructive criticism, searching for thinly veiled gossip, so on. The sound reasons for obeying the rule are many and various. Like, what if the book turns out to be a best-seller? If you read the future best-seller and determine it to be bad, then you have to resent your friend's success. If you read it and determine it to be good, then you have to envy his talent. There's no way to win. Never read your friends' books, probably. Instead, buy a copy, read the first and last sentences, skim the fourth chapter, cast a forensic eye at the acknowledgments page, and give it as a gift to someone else.  

Troy Patterson is Slate’s writer at large and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.