Are men underserved in books?

Two writers who've played controversial roles in the debate over gender equity discuss chick lit and Franzen

Published August 24, 2012 4:45PM (EDT)

Coming-of-age stories are normally associated with adolescence or young adulthood, when people have experiences that help them grow toward the person they are meant to be. Two recent novels, though—Amy Sohn’s "Motherland" and Jonathan Tropper’s "One Last Thing Before I Go" -- suggest that sometimes, a midlife crisis can also be a kind of coming-of-age story.

Sohn and Tropper have also played interesting roles in debates over gender and fiction -- and whether fiction on similar topics by male and female writers receives a different reception from critics. "Would I like to be taken at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby? Absolutely," said Jennifer Weiner to the Huffington Post, in the interview that sparked "Franzenfreude."

Sohn, meanwhile, wrote one of the more talked-about essays of the summer -- "The 40 Year Reversion" on the Awl -- about a group of New York friends with marriages and kids who have slipped back into their 20-something ways of drinking, drugging and hooking up with other people.

Salon talked to both Sohn and Tropper about sex, gender and fiction -- Sohn from New York, and Tropper from North Carolina, where his forthcoming Cinemax series, "Banshee," is filming.

Why did you revisit these characters?

Amy Sohn: Prospect Park West was so much about early parenthood, and skewering specific tropes around new motherhood and babies. By the time the book came out, I was already coming out of that myself. I was more interested in doing something about the years when the children are in school and the parents are more mobile. It's less about the relationship between the parents and their children, and more about the relationship between the parents and their significant others, their internal identity and their relationship with work. It limits your characters’ mobility when they have babies hooked onto their boobs all the time.

Marriage doesn't seem particularly appealing in your books.

I don't want to write about happy marriages. That wouldn’t be a very long book and I'm fascinated by the dynamics of marriage, what we commit to and the realities of building a life with someone with these little people around that you're responsible for. I'm totally fascinated by the way we lionize marriage and at the same time how hard it is.

Did you successfully work against that lionization of marriage?

I'm not so much trying to knock marriage on its head as write about the phenomenon of modern Gen-X marriage. I'm 38 and my generation of parents has so bought into this ideal, the bourgeois ideal around family and school zones and child rearing. What happens when you buy into that, and it kind of sucks anyway?

You did write about sex quite a bit. Do you find it hard to write about sex?

I enjoy writing about sex for two reasons: It’s a great vehicle for comedy and those scenes are great ways to show character. I'm really only interested in it in so far as it does those two things. Does it reveal character and is it funny. And OK, you wouldn't mind if your reader's a little bit turned on. It's one of my favorite parts of writing but I never try to write sex for erotic gratification only. That's not my role as a novelist.

I was curious about the treatment of race throughout the book. These people live rather segregated lives. At times, though, the way race was broached was disconcerting, like when we learn how young Darby's classmates "had turned out to be black children of single mothers and arrived in large, leased, gas-guzzling SUVs. Within weeks, he was using terms like 'baby daddy,' 'aks you,' and 'Moms.'" Karen also says, "Becoming a single mother is like being white all your life and then waking up one morning and realizing that you're black." Toward the end of the book, she takes up with the only significant black character, who is an ex-convict. What were you going for in these moments?

Karen projected a lot of ideas onto the North Slope when she moved there two years before "Motherland" begins.  Over the course of "Motherland" she comes face to face with these ideas. Karen is a fear-based character who represents the class, status and racial anxiety roiling beneath the surface of outwardly liberal Park Slope. I wanted her to change over the course of the book. Instead of making Wesley an African-American banker or lawyer, I made him a single dad who works in a stockroom, a very different kind of single parent than she is. They connect despite coming from different neighborhoods and backgrounds. What could be more anxiety-provoking to an anxious character than a love interest who has been in jail?  When she talks about being a single mom she is trying to describe her isolation in a setting where she thinks she might get support. It's satire. Fiction shouldn’t feel safe and I don't think fictional characters should voice only inoffensive thoughts. Fictional characters do messy things and make mistakes. Some (like Karen) grow, while others try and fail to grow. I want my characters to be human and compelling more than I want them to be likable.

You have some really interesting critical responses to your work. Did you read the comments in response to the essay you wrote for the Awl?

I read a couple with one eye open and then my editor Choire said, “I haven't read any of the comments and neither should you.” I really took that to heart. I'm glad that I put that piece on the Awl and it was absolutely the right place for it. There's something kind of scary going on with the anonymity of these message boards, where people who aren't even contributing a thought, a critique, an opinion, just like spewing venom at the universe, are given this kind of voice. It's my obligation to avoid those voices.

Are your friends still talking to you?

Yes, they're laughing. Some of the people that are in the piece don't know, but at least three or four of the people who were able to recognize themselves emailed me within a day or two to say, “I loved it,” or “Don't listen to the haters,” or like one guy wrote, “I'm proud to be a stoner dad.” My circle of friends has a sense of humor about it or they wouldn't be doing some of the things they're doing.

Do you write women's fiction?

I was thinking about this phrase, “smart chick lit.” It's so offensive because if “chick” means for women, the implication is that without the word “smart” in front of it, women’s fiction is dumb. That's so deeply, deeply offensive to me. I consider myself a literary fiction writer who's extremely interested in the psychological life of women. I'm proud of this book.

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While Amy Sohn often writes about the lives of women, Jonathan Tropper is very interested in writing the lives of men. In Tropper’s "One Last Thing Before I Go," Silver is an aging drummer with a waning career after one moment of brief glory, seven years out of a marriage, a mostly absent father, living in an apartment complex with other divorced men. He is lonely, his life is rather drab and there’s little for him to look forward to. When he is diagnosed with a heart condition, Silver refuses to have surgery to save his life — much to the chagrin of his loved ones — because while he doesn’t necessarily want to die, he doesn’t much want to live.

"One Last Thing Before I Go" is not an overly complex novel but it is very readable, very funny, and has really heartwarming moments. Silver, as the lovable loser, makes you root for him, makes you want him to do right by the people who love him, do right by himself.

Where did you get the idea to start writing about Silver and his heart?

Jonathan Tropper: I’d always had a picture of this guy in my head, and I wanted to do something a little different. In my other books my characters tend to be surrounded by a lot of people. You see these people, sloppy, lonely people in a restaurant, in a pizza store, walking around, and they had to have a sort of progression in their lives to get to that place. I wanted to write about that kind of loneliness and what it feels like to be in the inside of that.

This novel read like a mid-life coming-of-age story because Silver has all these moments where he’s trying to reconcile who he is and the life he lost and what may be ahead of him. What makes men – men and women, actually – in their late 30s, early 40s, go into such a tailspin?

I don’t know that everyone goes into such a tailspin, but we’re by nature contemplative beings, and depending where you are in your lives, once you start hearing the ticking clock of your own mortality, you begin to question things, and you begin to realize that the older you get, the more irrevocable your decisions and your choices have become.

Marriage doesn’t come across as a particularly successful endeavor in this book. Do you think it’s easier to write about bad marriages than it is to write about good marriages?

Silver’s parents have a fantastic marriage. And obviously, if you’re writing about a building full of divorced men, it’s going to tip the balance that way, but that’s just because of the point of view of where these guys live. I don’t think it’s easier to write about a good marriage or a bad marriage, it’s more interesting to write about strife. I don’t think people are really interested in reading about happy people.

How do you avoid stereotypes when you are writing about men and women and love and sex and marriage?

I try to think about the specific character. I try to know the character, and this is what this character would do and say. And someone may say, "Well that’s not what a woman in this situation might do or say," and I reply, "This woman in this situation will do or say this." The second rule of thumb I have is to really tell the truth. What really makes characters come to life is when you give them reactions, thoughts and emotions that are the unvarnished versions of how you perceive those emotions, as opposed to the literary version of them.

One of the relationships that comes across very well was the relationship between Jack, Oliver and Silver, because they were these men who are unmoored and lonely, but they also created a family of their own.

I’m really interested in writing about male friendship. That is a very underserved field in the literary world. Men have ways of relating to each other that are largely nonverbal, and I wanted to explore that, explore how men form connections. I wanted to write about how men at middle age are forced to form new connections, which is really contrary to their nature.

Silver’s life seems hopeless, but at the end you leave the reader with hope, and I thought that was a good choice after all this, not darkness, but the loneliness and the isolation. Did you deliberately end the novel on a note of hope, even though there’s some ambiguity about what would happen next?

If I’m going to invest the time and the hours in reading a book I want to be in some way uplifted. I feel a pointlessness in being taken down a long, dark road to be left there. I guess my own personal philosophy is that there’s always a place to find hope, and I’m not going to refuse to convey that in my book.

Do you find it hard to write about sex?

I don’t find it hard to write about sex. My books are not graphic about sex, but I try to make them honest. I try to present sex as one of the fundamental ingredients in the lives of these people, sort of as a parameter of what is going on in their lives.

Do you think your work is taken seriously?

It didn’t use to be, and part of that was the way it was presented to the marketplace, and part of that was the fact that I don’t write in a literary manner, because I’m not writing in that sort of obtuse literary manner. I didn’t set out to write “important” fiction. My goal is to write and entertain and illuminate, but I’m not looking to write the Great American Novel. I’m just looking to write my novels. I was really gratified with my last book that received a wide range of positive critical response. There was a great deal of validation for me there.

Do you read reviews of your work?

I’m more interested in how readers respond. I love going out on book tours and hearing the responses of readers, but I definitely read critical reviews. I don’t quite believe it when writers say they don’t.

Some critics suggest you might be a bit sexist in how you talk about women.

I’ve actually never seen that. I’ve heard from many people that they like the way I write; I’ve actually heard from many women that they like the way I write women.

When Casey and the fellows are sitting around outside the pool and Jack is explaining why he likes younger women, he starts talking about how he misses his wife. That was an interesting juxtaposition. Do you think that you write about women in ways that are accurate?

When I was writing that section, I wasn’t writing about women, I was writing about men. It goes back to telling the truth. I will certainly write about how men and certain men perceive women, and that’s not the author being sexist, that’s the author portraying the points of view of certain men. I’m not going to apologize for that because I believe them to be true.

Why don’t more people write about men?

In the current marketplace relationships and family stories is the purview of women writers, which I think is a frustration to both sexes. There are male writers trying to do it, but are maybe not published or being taken seriously. There are female writers who are writing about bigger things but are being pigeonholed into relationship categories. The marketplace needs to categorize things.  There are the men who write serious literary fiction who are writing about that, everyone from Philip Roth to Michael Chabon are writing that stuff, Jonathan Franzen. But it’s sort of viewed a little differently when it falls under the important fiction label.

Do you want your work to receive the important fiction label?

I am trying to write accessible fiction that will appeal, and move and entertain and illuminate people. It would be nice if one of those novels accidentally became that, but it’s just not what I set out to do.

By Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay's writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2012, Oxford American, the Rumpus, the Wall Street Journal and many other publications

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Amy Sohn Books Jennifer Weiner Jonathan Tropper Writers And Writing