Boys, Books and Bildungsroman

A Brief Caution

By Dan Friedman

Published May 14, 2009.
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I was shocked when I interviewed novelist and Columbia creative writing professor Gary Shteyngart last year and he remarked on how many men write but how few men read novels — statistically speaking. As someone for whom novel-reading is a constitutive pursuit, this gendering of reading sounded absurd. All through high school, college and grad school, my friends, peers and colleagues had read novels whatever their gender or genders.

Stories of Growing Up These three new books are about boys who, from the context of their past, slowly turn to face their future as men.
Stories of Growing Up These three new books are about boys who, from the context of their past, slowly turn to face their future as men.

It turned out that getting ready for the birth of my elder daughter I’d missed the furor surrounding Ian McEwan article to which Shteyngart’s comment referred. In it McEwan had concluded “when women stop reading, the novel will be dead.” His conclusion was based on a mishmash of statistics and anecdotes (most notably his inability to give away excellent free books to men in central London). But the reductive truth of it seems based on the notion that stories are for girls and facts are for boys.

I find terribly sad the idea that people would not want to read roughly in accordance to their ability. Reading is how we learn to imagine others — not the outcomes of the plot, but how characters, events and language flow around each other: how other people exist. Novels expose you to new people, worlds and aspects of worlds. Reading a good novel though is not about its internal facts, but their apprehension and representation by the author: If you read “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” for Catholic theology or Irish history, you are missing the point. Reading delights and instructs (pace Horace) us as to how other people see and have insight into the world.

For example, this month has seen the appearance of three male coming-of age novels: “Whatever Makes You Happy” by my friend Will Sutcliffe, out in paperback from Bloomsbury USA; “Selfless” (Absey & Co.) by David Michael Slater, and “A Seat at the Table: A Novel of Forbidden Choices” by Joshua Halberstam (Sourcebooks Landmark). In the interests of full disclosure I don’t know Halberstam or Slater in the slightest.

These are all authors who might expect some publisher or reader support. Sutcliffe is a best-selling author in Britain whose books — this is his fifth novel — keep getting optioned by Hollywood; Slater has a reputable oeuvre of young adult and children’s fiction and would hope to bring that readership to the next stage; Halberstam has written accessibly on philosophy, culture and religion, and he has a constituency among the students he has taught at various universities.

Furthermore, as well as track records, these authors have good elevator pitches. Halberstam is writing a heavily fictionalized memoir about Elisha, a descendant of prominent Hasidic dynasties (on both sides) growing up in postwar New York. Elisha embraces the Hasidic storytelling tradition but is otherwise more curious about the secular and modern world around him than his heritage and tradition can comfortably deal with. Sutcliffe takes thirty-somethings who were childhood friends and asks the question, ‘what would happen if their mothers made a pact to go and spend a week being maternal to their emotionally distant, variably successful, and relatively immature sons?’

Slater is the longest-winded and perhaps most ambitious, recording the high school and post college years of Jonathan Schwartz who finds out that his father — a famous writer — did not write his own books. Along this model of core inconsistency, Jonathan’s views of his own identity and those of his friends and family slip around dangerously.

These books have hooks, flow, arcs and style. They may not be “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” but most books are not, and not being Joyce has its advantages too — like being more obviously relevant to people not brought up Irish, Catholic or with preternatural sensitivity. Unlike Harry Potter — often misguidedly adduced as the quintessential bildungsroman of our time —who fights his final battle without ever reaching adulthood and then whose story jumps to having kids of his own, these three novels deal with the essential part of growing up (however arrested that development may be): leaving home and accommodating the world of destination with the home of origin.

These three novels are sharp, clear, funny, evocative of the pains of growing up but, on a rough average, ranked by Amazon just below the top half-million books. Not just factual accounts of how to grow up, they are stories about the process of telling stories — stories of growing up. They are stories of boys who, from the context of their past, slowly turn to face their future as men, but — perhaps with the exception of the mothers who buy Sutcliffe’s book — few people seem to care. So what’s the cost of this neglect? In a word: sympathy.

Film, television and video games can be fun and can teach lessons but they rarely, if ever, engage the linguistic faculty that is our prime mode of interacting with others or provide a nuanced insight into the radical otherness that is another person’s way of being in the world. Books make us feel not for another person but as another person — from the inside, not from the outside. The essential pathos of reading is not pity, it’s sympathy. For those who mature without reading or read without maturing — and for those of us who live with them — the world is a narrower, less sympathetic place.

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