A Moment of Jen
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Thursday, January 22, 2009
posted by Jen at 1/22/2009 04:03:00 PM

I was watching “30 Rock,” where a vacationing Liz Lemon relaxes with an ice-cream cone and a book with a pink cover featuring a stiletto heel and a Cosmo glass. Its title? “Novel for Women.”

At first I was all, like, “Oh, ha! That Tina Fey, with her rapier wit and her trenchant commentary on the state of publishing today!”

Then I thought “I bet some publisher’s actually checking right now to see if that’s been an actual title with an actual cover, and if not, whether they can use it.”

Then I thought, “What if it’s my publisher checking?”

Ironically, these days, I am not reading Novels for Women. I am reading Nonfiction by Men.

I started with AMERICAN SUCKER, New Yorker film critic David Denby’s rueful accounting of how his marriage and then his finances fell apart.

I moved on to BEAUTIFUL BOY, west coast journalist David Scheff’s rueful accounting of how his marriage fell apart and his kid is a meth addict. This, it emerges, is very hard for Scheff, and his new wife and new children. Presumably, it’s hard for the drug-addicted son, too.

Next, I picked up NIGHT OF THE GUN, New York Times writer David Carr’s rueful and, post-James Frey, investigatory accounting of how he and his girlfriend were addicts and he wound up raising their twin girls, only he was still doing crack, which he would occasionally purchase while his daughters slept, bundled up in the dead of winter in the backseat. Then he got married and landed a series of great jobs. Then he got arrested for drunk driving again and still sounds like kind of a mess (albeit a mess with a job at the Times).

After Gun, I decided I’d enough of reading about well-connected white guys of a certain age detailing their screw-ups in endless, sheepish detail (and even with the sheepishness, there’s a certain wolfish gleam to the writing, a whiff of boastful braggadocio, of Look at what a big, huge mess I made of everything, like a cadre of oversized Dennis the Menaces posing in front of broken cookie jars).

But then, dammit, I got pulled back in by Dwight Garner’s approving review of David Lozell Martin’s LOSING EVERYTHING, a novelist’s rueful accounting of how his marriage broke up and he went crazy and lost all his money and ended up broke and homeless and diabetic and with horrific gastrointestinal problems, too.

A few questions about the dirty-white-boy books (and yes, as far as I can tell, the genre of the male midlife drugs-sex-and-losing-everything confessional is populated entirely by white guys.)

Are journalists more likely to have their lives implode, or just more likely to have their accounts of said implosions published?

Why is the Times so fascinated by these stories (two of the four that I read had their first lives in the pages of the Sunday Times Magazine)?

What would happen if a woman wrote the same kind of confessional memoir about busting up a marriage, shucking her kids and spouse like old clothes, diving into drugs or porn and/or ending up homeless? My guess is that the critical reaction (curated, as it is, mostly by middle-aged white guys) would not be nearly as approving.

But why guess?

Here’s what the New York Times had to say about Katha Pollitt, who confessed to much milder sins (Google-stalking an ex) in her collection of essays, LEARNING TO DRIVE. “She has decided to wave her dirty laundry (among which she found unidentified striped panties) and confesses to “Webstalking” her longtime, live-in, womanizing former boyfriend. (Take that, you rat!),” tut-tuts the paper. “It’s hard to tell if she’s coming into her own, trying to sell more books or has lost it entirely.”

Here’s the Times on Elizabeth Hayt’s I’M NO SAINT, A Nasty Little Memoir of Love and Leaving. “Managing to combine psychobabble and designer name-dropping, Hayt charmlessly recounts her coke habit, eating problems, abortion, Botox injections, struggles with motherhood, aversion to 12-step programs and hollow promiscuity…. a graphic account of one woman's capacity for greed, vanity and loveless physical intimacy.”

So, just to be clear, if you’re a lady and you ‘fess up to an unhealthy online interest in an ex, you may have “lost it entirely.”

If you’re a dude and you write about, say, smoking pot with your prepubescent son, scoring coke with your daughters asleep in your car, or spewing uncontrollable diabetes-related diarrhea all over your son’s back seat, well then you, sir, have written “a bruising survival story,” or a “brave, heartfelt, often funny, often frustrating book.”

If you’re a chick who sleeps around and lives to tell (and sell) the tale, you’re greedy, vain and charmless. If you’re a guy who spends nights on end looking at Internet porn and days investing in drug companies that overcharge cancer patients for their cures, then you’re “formidably smart.”

Another question: how are these memoirs of male, middle-aged madness meant to be experienced? As entertainment? As cautionary tales? Do people read them to feel better about their own choices, and the messes they’ve made?

The Times suggests that LOSING EVERYTHING can function as a kind of roadmap for the downtrodden in our current hard times, but surely there’s a difference between losing your job, your investments, or even your house, and losing everything, up to and including your dignity (and yes, if you’ve written an entire chapter about being so constipated that a nurse had to stick her entire greased arm inside of you, the dignity ship has sailed without you aboard).

Last note: under no circumstances should aspiring writers read LOSING EVERYTHING. I t contains a scene even more horrifying than the one with the constipated hero, broken and moaning and crapping himself. It occurs after Lozell Martin, luckless, loveless, ill and broke, appeals to the court of last resort: his publisher.

“I told (my publisher) that I needed a book contract. I hadn’t hit bottom yet – that was to come in an emergency room some months later – but I was close. I needed to know I would have at least one more book published before I died. Having lost everything, I needed one last time to be a writer.”

There’s no book on offer. No outline, no first three chapters, not even the idea for a book…and yet, there’s cash on the barrelhead.

Then again, maybe the publisher figured that there might be a story in Lozell Martin’s reduced circumstances…and that he'd be guaranteed some nice coverage from the Times.
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