How Should a Male Writer Be? On the Toxic Competitiveness of Writers
From Mailer and Vidal, to Christmas Party Punch-Ups, It's Rough Out There
The premise of Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from 1975, is a literary grudge between a poet, Von Humboldt Fleisher, and his former friend and protégé Charlie Citrine, a biographer and playwright from Chicago who gets all the money and recognition in American letters that Humboldt thinks he deserves. Citrine drives a Mercedes Benz, not quite shamelessly, and Humboldt dies in relative obscurity. It’s said to be a roman á clef based on Bellow’s relationship with the poet and short story writer Delmore Schwartz. Humboldt is a true artist, wanting to lift society out of the gutter through art, and Citrine is the sellout who makes a boatload of cash through his writing. Both Humboldt, and Citrine’s Mercedes, meet tragicomic ends.
The grudge is a theme that is very much a part of our literary past. Writers quarrel, sometimes on paper, and to a lesser extent in person. Hemingway did it with F. Scott Fitzgerald and the critic Max Eastman, who he slapped with a copy of Eastman’s own book in the office of their shared editor, Max Perkins. Perkins kept the book and Hemingway later inscribed it, “This is the book I ruined on Max (The Prick) Eastman’s nose…” Notice how he stresses the importance of the book, an object, over a person, “the prick.”
Norman Mailer famously showed his disdain for Gore Vidal on the Dick Cavett show, where he had head-butted Vidal in the greenroom pre-interview over a bad review Vidal had written.
Even before this, Mailer staged a one-sided pissing contest in an early essay he wrote called “Evaluations: Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room.” In it, Mailer wrote sly takedowns of James Jones, William Styron, Truman Capote (“tart as a grand aunt”), Bellow (“hopeless on the highest level”), J.D. Salinger (“no more than the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school”).
Along with grudges and grievances from our major male American writers of the mid-century, is a trademark misogyny. Of women writers, Mailer admitted he was not in competition with them at all. “I have nothing to say about any of the talented women writing today. Out of what is no doubt a fault in me, I do not seem able to read them. Indeed I doubt there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale.”
Competition among these old literary lions rarely incorporates women into the mix. I’ve always taken this to mean that women writers of the post-war era simply didn’t act like buffoons and didn’t feel the need to measure their self-worth as did some of their male counterparts. But when we consider Mailer’s admitted fault of never being able to read them, the real reason women aren’t included in these literary rivalries is because the loudest men never saw themselves in competition with them. Mailer was under-read when it came to women’s writing. Without a competitive stake in his reading experience, he saw no reason to read something that, in his own words, felt “fey, old hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic… or else bright and stillborn.” Feminine, in other words.
“If literature were a competition, the male writers at the center of this argument, have definitely lost.”
There are plenty of examples from the past of intellectual hypocrisy, so there’s no sense in shocking ourselves with things Mailer wrote in the late 50s. After all, he wasn’t the great feminist thinker of his day, in fact he was the opposite, and a perfect example of the type of male writer no man wants to be thought of as today.
In Siri Hustvedt’s enlightening essay, “No Competition,” she recalls an instance where she interviews the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard in front of an audience and asks him why in the first volume of My Struggle, where hundreds of writers are referenced, is there only one female writer mentioned (Julia Kristeva). Knausgaard’s reply: “No competition.” Hustvedt didn’t get a chance to follow up wholly, but gives him the benefit of the doubt, deducing that it would be preposterous for Knausgaard to think that Kristeva is the only woman capable of writing well. “My guess instead is that for him competition, literary and otherwise, means pitting himself against other men. Women, however brilliant, simply don’t count.”
Hustvedt interrogates the femininity in Knausgaard’s writing throughout the My Struggle volumes, suggesting multiple motivations for why he thinks, like John McEnroe as of late, that women are no competition for men. Serena Williams, Julia Kristeva, Siri Hustvedt, and on, perhaps Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Alice Monroe, Jhumpa Lahiri, Rachel Cusk, and younger women like Emma Cline, Catherine Lacey, Alyssa Nutting, Ottessa Moshfegh, Tea Obreht, Rivka Galchen, my own wife Alexandra Kleeman—I’m only thinking of fiction and the greatest tennis player ever, but chances are you are intent on reading or watching what these women do next. And the number of Mailer and Philip Roth and Saul Bellow novels you have on your to-read list is scarce in comparison. If literature were a competition, the male writers at the center of this argument, have definitely lost.
But Hustvedt and Knausgaard have grasped something that I feel, too. That competition in our field, as in all fields, does exist, and I have been susceptible to it. Knausgaard is certainly not alone in measuring himself against other male writers. I shamefully do this all the time. Writers are constantly competing. For what? Maybe we’re not that deluded to think we are in the running for the Pulitzer Prize or the title of Best Writer Ever. That, as Hustvedt points out, would be absolutely silly. But there are competitive stakes at hand along every step of the way in a writer’s career. We are constantly competing for agents and publishers to take us on, for large advances and better pay. We are competing for our publisher’s attention, their resources in marketing, their willingness to advertise and place our books on visible tables and prominent slots on Amazon. We are competing for scarce review space. Outside of bookselling, we are competing for teaching jobs, fellowships and grants. Recently, a glance at the New York Public Library Cullman Center website indicates “The competition for the Cullman Center fellowship is now open.” What else can we call it, if not competition? And a writer must take part, however unwilling to compete.
“Novels take a hell of a long time to write, and in between books many of us feel forgotten. And when we are forgotten, it is quite natural to covet thy neighbor’s career.”
We are more aware now than ever of identity politics, and our publishers have been taking strides to close the gender gap. Book review sites, in their yearly roundups, cultivate lists that reflect diversity and gender fairly. Rumors of large advances, when leaked to cause a fury among writers, seem to be about equal, though to establish complete equality in a creative field is hard to police. Hustvedt hammers a very important point home: “It is absolutely essential that men and women become fully conscious of what is at stake, that it is blazingly clear to every single one of us who cares about the novel that there is something pernicious and silly at work in our reading habits, that the fate of literary works cannot be decided by a no-competition clause.”
Competitive thinking and behavior has consistently reared its ugly head since I entered the publishing world. It may be frowned upon and déclassé to exhibit these emotions, but I’ve seen all kinds of snubs and scuffles from the haters and maladjusted. While I am a competitive person, I try to keep a healthy perspective, and rarely let the competitive demons leave my head. I’ve listened to faculty talk smack about their talentless students, and have watched those talentless students become authors celebrated for their talent. It is hard to not feel passed over in this career. But it is essential that we learn to deal with it.
In a scene from Francine Prose’s novel, Blue Angel, Swenson, a professor of creative writing, who has an ill-advised affair with Angela Argo, his talented and troubled student, goes to his local bookstore to size up his competition. First, Swenson avoids the fiction section altogether as not to pass the S shelf where his novels would be, had they been in print.
He grabs a copy of Fiction Today. Let’s see who’s doing what. The first story, by a writer whose name he faintly recognizes, describes a father cold-bloodedly executing the family poodle. He skims through it, then begins another story, by another vaguely familiar name, a woman’s this time, and stops when the mother backs her car over the narrator’s kitty. Is this some kind of theme issue? Or didn’t the editor’s notice?… He slides the magazine back on the shelf and picks up Poets and Writers, paging past the ads for summer conferences (to which he has not been invited) and anthologies (to which he has not been asked to submit), past the interview with the semifamous novelist discoursing on how she warns her students about the perils of putting descriptions of food in their stories.
Let he or she among us who hasn’t felt Swenson’s pain cast the first stone. This is a perfect portrait of the modern competitive novelist in his natural habitat. Novels take a hell of a long time to write, and in between books many of us feel forgotten. And when we are forgotten, it is quite natural to covet thy neighbor’s career.
In competition with each other, minor infractions can occur. This brings me back to Humboldt’s Gift and the grudge between Charlie Citrine and the hatred he’s endured from his less successful mentor Von Humboldt Fleisher. I know plenty of Humboldts. Swensons, too. They are friends of mine. I have one friend, we’ll call him Jonathan Not-Franzen, who frequently introduces writers to me like this: “This is my former student, Elaine.” It doesn’t matter how many novels Elaine has published, or how exclusive the party we’re attending is. Elaine will forever remain a former student in Jonathan’s mind. It is an assertion of status. Jonathan feels like a general having to endure socializing with a lowly private in the officer’s club. Who let you in? I can see the flicker of disappointment on Elaine’s face as I shake her former student hand. She wants so badly to receive credit for her accomplishments, to be accepted as an equal, and she is right to feel this. But my friend won’t have it. Shortly thereafter, we move to the bar. We’re at a cocktail party, remember. A good one. There are many writers way more famous than Elaine to meet.
Later, Elaine will be nominated for the National Book Award. Jonathan, suffering from Humboldt’s syndrome, or Swenson disorder, will be compelled to make a post on Facebook. He congratulates his former student on her nomination, then slyly takes credit for picking her as the most talented student all those years ago, at Iowa (which he adds), where he was only invited to teach for one semester (which he leaves out).
Both of these instances really happened. While these may be minor infractions—introductions and Facebook posts—the meaning behind them is clear. It’s all part of the competition.
I’ve witnessed worse behavior, from men in particular. There was the time I heard someone from a prestigious literary organization refer to Maya Angelou as a “real bitch,” may she rest in peace. There was the fistfight I helped break up at a literary Christmas party between a novelist and an editor of a publishing house. It was rumored to be over the size of the novelist’s hefty advance. When the fight broke out, my friend, Paul (not Auster), grabbed one guy. Then I leapt in and separated the other guy who was pretty heated. He had just been smacked on the ear. This felt like the right thing to do, breaking up a rivalry. It felt brave and very male. Even more manly than actual fighting. I began to have an inflated sense of self-worth.
The next morning I received a call from my agent telling me that he had heard about the bravery I exhibited in the bar and that he was proud of me. And then in a follow up email, he wrote to say that some people were saying that I had nothing to do with breaking up the fight, and that it was just Paul, who acted alone. This infuriated me. I wanted credit for my actions. I felt the push and pull of competition, the feeling of being overlooked, even cheated. I asked my agent, who was spreading these nasty rumors? He wouldn’t say. He rarely tells me who says what, to protect me from ruining my career. I wanted to take to Facebook and post at everyone who was listed as going on the Christmas invite. I acted on instinct! What did you do but stand there? But then, that was giving into competitive thinking. That was Von Humboldt Fleisher. Wasn’t breaking up the actual bar brawl enough? It was before my agent had called. So I let it go. I told my agent whoever was talking shit about me was dead wrong, and a bastard, and that he could quote me on that. (He didn’t.) As the publishing minions gossiped away, the true story became more muddled. The writer, the one from the brawl, his advance went from six figures to seven. The editor from the fight, his imprint kept changing. Bystanders were competing with who had the better story. But I let it all go. And chose to believe the version that happened. That I jumped in, after Paul, risking bodily harm, so that an author didn’t slug an editor over his high seven-figure advance.
Alex Gilvarry’s Eastman Was Here is available now from Viking.