In her recent essay, “On Pandering,” Claire Vaye Watkins records the shock of discovering that she wrote, primarily, for old white men, members of the literati like Franzen, Roth, et al whose approval she sought and to whose tastes and experiences her fiction catered. This summer, I experienced a revelation not dissimilar, but arguably even more depressing: I was writing my novel for young white men, and not the famous kind, not the lauded writer genius kind. Not the industry gatekeepers, not the academic elite. No, I was writing for your average, everyday young white dude whose approval, it turns out, I’d been seeking for decades.
It began with an anecdote: My colleagues and I were drinking in a suave and dimly lit Cambridge bar after work. All of us fiction writers, we gabbed over cocktails about our work and writing in general. A male friend recounted an early workshopping experience in which he’d written a sex scene from a woman’s perspective. It was commended by a male professor but shot down by a female workshop participant on the basis that his representation of a female orgasm had missed the mark.
Listening to this story, I felt proud for a moment, proud that my first big attempt at a serious piece of work—this novel of mine, that I’ve been working on for three years now—was deemed to have, by all accounts, pretty much nailed a typically male experience with sex. My young white dude protagonist was sexually frustrated, obsessed with women, and compulsively autoerotic in a convincingly dudeish manner. I’d even written a passable scene in which said dude loses his virginity. How clever I am, I thought. This hubris lasted for all of ten seconds. As the conversation around me moved on, it dawned on me, slowly and painfully, that in fact, this was no kind of achievement at all.
Whatever value my novel might have—however “good” it may or may not be deemed—on some level I thought, privately, childishly, that I’d earned an extra merit badge for writing dude so well. But this is not the case. That my male friend had a hard time writing female sex is not due entirely to a lack of relevant experience; it’s symptomatic, at least in part, of his lacking in relevant cultural material.
The male psyche, as it pertains to sex, has been served to us endlessly, and not just by literature. We’ve been handed sex a la young white dude in every douche-y movie since Animal House. I grew up on young white dudes and their tortured-about-sex songs—Morrissey devotees and their progeny—and Nick Hornby’s morose thirty-five-year-old adolescent in High Fidelity.
I wasn’t silent long enough for my friends to realize that I’d dropped out of the conversation, but in that thirty seconds in a dark bar in Cambridge, I’d stumbled through a series of revelations:
- I write for an imagined audience of young white men.
- Writing for them is not a challenge.
- I am not nearly as clever as I thought I was.
But I wasn’t quite done; there was one penny left to drop.
Not only is writing dude easy, it is easier for me than writing a woman who fucks, who thinks about fucking, who likes to fuck. I sat in my silence, clung to my sweaty scotch tumbler, and tried to process this discovery: I am a woman—a woman who has experienced woman desires, woman fantasies, woman sex—and yet it was easier, safer for me to write like a man, about a man, for men.
Writing myself, and not the nerdy chronic masturbator I’ve created, is the truly radical act. Writing myself will take a courage and skill that I didn’t possess when I started out, when I decided to play it safe.
As for why Watkins wrote for the powered elite and I wrote for the common dude, this is how I was doing pandering wrong. I grew up in an ex-mining town in Yorkshire that was emasculated by Thatcher in the eighties and never recovered. A town in which a certain malevolence abounds, a certain impotent rage that is always simmering in public spaces—the shopping centres, the pub toilets, the dole queue. In my teenage years, I learned how to drink beer like a dude, pound shots like a dude (straight faced, no grimacing), rock out like a dude, and comport myself dudeishly in all matters (no giggles, no squeals, no fuss) as a way of gaining respect, as a means of earning approval from the young white men around me. No wonder this was my imagined audience—this was the audience I’d been trying to impress throughout my formative years.
And the crushing irony? The men that I was writing for do not read. Had I known anything at all about the publishing industry when I started out I would have known how big a share of the buying power women in general hold, and I would not have simply assumed that this power lay where power always lies. Needless to say, I am no longer writing this novel for that audience.
I am still proud of the novel I’ve written and I still have a deep love for my protagonist, in all his misanthropic impotence. But now I know that the real challenge lies ahead. After this novel is done, this novel that I have given three years, countless hours, and endless words, the real work begins. After this novel is done, it’s time to get down to the radical business of writing myself.