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 [literary] 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.
The Guardian recently reposted an essay by Erin Spampinato, asking the question: “How does the literary canon reinforce the logic of the incel?”
In her essay, after charting the now-familiar rise to prominence of the “incel” “movement” on- and offline, Spampinato wonders if it is less underground internet cultures that have nurtured its principles and more the Great American Novel that has given these alienated young men such odd ideas about sexual entitlement. She writes that incels “aren’t monsters of cruel internet culture — they are the product of the American literary canon that has long glorified male sexual frustration”; the product of the Great American Novel, that nationalised canonical signifier, which “treats the topic of male sexual frustration as if it is of prime importance to us all.”
In reading this historical overview of so-called “involuntary celibacy”, I can’t help but feel like Spampinato is overseeing Western misogyny more generally, albeit topically narrowed to address the recent “incel” explosion. Her observations will already be familiar to most — old-fashioned misogyny and “involuntary celibacy” are, of course, closely linked and share many of the same dissonant contradictions, which she highlights here explicitly — but there are nuances here which can perhaps tell us more about American literature, and certain subsections of the American psyche today more generally, than Spampinato’s overview immediately allows.
The primary frustration for Spampinato is that she is fed up of being force-fed this kind of literature, at the expense of all else that is written within the country and about its society. Her central recommendation is that men broaden their horizons when it comes to their reading habits — suggesting that women’s lives may in fact depend on it — and whilst that is almost certainly a legitimate concern, there is, at the same time, that suggests the “incel movement” is a symptom of modernist man finally being well on the way out.
In reading Spampinato’s essay, I am reminded — once again — of Leslie Fielder’s Love and Death in the American Novel, a book I really haven’t been able to stop going on about in recent months, with it having galvanised a newly ferocious appetite for the “classics” of American fiction that I have previously had no (studious) contact with.
This does not detract from Spampinato’s criticism of over saturation, of course. Male sexual frustration is given all kinds of precedence in the anglo-American literary canon, but what lies beneath this?
At one point, Spampinato links to another article by Rebecca Solnit — “80 Books No Woman Should Read” — written in response to an Esquire article of what it considers to be the 80 best books that everyone should read. Here, the various books are presented to the reader through a woefully performative masculine brevity. (#1 is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: “Because he showed us just how long the road could be.” It’s like a coffee house spoken word bro’s personality turned into a listicle. It makes me want to retch.) Solnit writes:
Scanning the list, which is full of all the manliest books ever, lots of war books, only one book by an out gay man, I was reminded that though it’s hard to be a woman it’s harder in many ways to be a man, that gender that’s supposed to be incessantly defended and demonstrated through acts of manliness. I looked at that list and all unbidden the thought arose, no wonder there are so many mass murders. Which are the extreme expression of being a man when the job is framed this way, though happily many men have more graceful, empathic ways of being in the world.
But still I struggle to marry up the criticisms wholly with the reality. Whilst the whole atmosphere around these books and their canonical reputation is intolerable, there is surely more to many of the books themselves.
Many are books, most notably, about men trying and failing to be men. Mass murder seems less an extreme expression of “the job” done well and more the result of a buckling under its weight. These books, to me — as a recent and quite possibly naive reader — demonstrate a sort of protective romanticisation and dramatisation of men’s historic inability to be themselves. These are undoubtedly violent books about frustrated and troubled characters, but rather than offering men with an example to follow, surely what they demonstrate is masculinity at the edge of itself — or, indeed, at the edge of something else.
Take McCarthy’s The Road as a prime example; as a book about fatherhood at the end of the world. Surely it is no coincidence that these two topics are tackled together.
Or, perhaps, to sidestep into the cinematic, Howard Beale in Network. Is he not the epitome of the modern American man? He isn’t just a newsreader. He’s a man despairing at his situation. A man who despairs within his patriarchal role as information-giver and his actual impotence in the face of it.
Fiedler’s argument is even more specific than this in Love and Death in the American Novel and, in contrast to Spampinato’s argument, contends less with the general sociohistorical misogyny of Anglo-American culture and more with the entangled homoeroticism and impotency that defines, for him, all classical literary representations of American masculinity.
Classic American fiction, Fiedler writes, is less misogynistic through its sense of entitlement to the female body and more through its avoidance of women altogether, instead turning “from society to nature or nightmare out of a desperate need to avoid the facts of wooing, marriage, and child-bearing.” Fiedler continues: “the typical male of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat — anywhere to avoid ‘civilisation,’ which is to say, the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage, and responsibility.”
Fiedler even goes so far as to declare that “there is no real sexuality in American life and therefore there cannot very well be any in American art.”
Of course, so many of these writers, like today’s incels, have long engaged in similar feats of mental gymnastics to account for their own misogyny and sociosexual impotency. Fiedler highlights, for instance, how Mark Twain, in 1601, “contrasts the vigor of Elizabethan Englishwomen with their American descendants; contrasting the sexual utopia of precolonial England with a fallen America where the men copulate ‘but once in seven yeeres'”.
As with Spampinato’s view of today’s incels, this sexual frustration seems borne of ineptitude rather than a distinct lack of flirtatious opportunities with the opposite sex. However, unlike Spampinato, it is this which Fiedler takes to be the primary focus of the American novel. It’s sexual context is perhaps a left-over tradition from the modern European novel as it has defined itself since its conception. Whilst it nonetheless relates to sexual conquest explicitly, let us not limit the symbolism of impotence to this alone. It becomes, instead, a national trait in all circumstances.
The first modern novel, so says Fiedler and countless others, is Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a classic story that concerns itself with seduction more than anything else. The tribulations of seduction are also, notably, what seem to end up killing everyone in the story.
This central engine, arguably ever-present but exaggerated in modern literature is, in the most general sense, what Fiedler would suggest is the primary concern of an American literature in his most famous essay “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” — not love or seduction as such, but an abstracted, at first at least, interpersonal responsibility and failure to uphold it.
This presents the American psyche with a potent challenge, one which has tended towards conservatism ever since the time of the frontier: “the white American must make a choice between coming to terms with institutionalized discrepancy or formu- lating radically new ideologies.”
What is the “incel”, in this respect? Is it a radically new ideology in the face of an institutionalised impotence? A new accounting for that central condition of the American psyche? No — it’s certainly not new, Spampinato and Fiedler both make that abundantly clear. Is it, then, instead, another generation’s way of coming to terms with institutionalized discrepancy, here interpreted to refer to the blanket misogyny of Western society more generally, as a deeply institutionalized discrepancy between the sexes?
Fiedler notes, already, that queerness and blackness have, for many decades, been the tandem discrepancies to be processed by the white American man. These remain potent points of contention and each has been a central concern for mass shooters in recent years too but now, relative to previous moments in the recent history of American gun violence, it is misogyny that seems to be provoking the most violent ire.
Indeed, considering the hype surrounding the homoeroticism of Bronze Age Pervert, it seems that queerness at least has been absorbed into the male psyche. (Mike Crumplar did well to highlight this strange turn in his review of Bronze Age Mindset.) Blackness still has a long ways to go but, surely, given the continual shifting of demographics, it is only a matter of time. Misogyny, on the other hand, shows no signs of abating.
In the theorising of the “incel” mindset in such a way that seems to bottle this condition, long said by the likes of Fiedler to be a foundation of the American male psyche, we nonetheless see a distinct lack of self-awareness in these online groups. Spampinato suggests that part of the problem may lie in how these books are taught — as well as broadening their horizons, if America were more honest about the way it has long represented itself, it may stop kidding itself.
Because the truth is, if it has always been hard to be a man, it is only getting harder, and the irony of how much effort is being put into retaining misogyny by some groups is astounding and — surely — unsustainable.
As Uri tweeted recently:
Edit: A note on the title:
And I didn’t think about changing it before posting…
Note to self: pick titles after you’ve written things, not before.