Our Love/Hate Relationship with Literary Boys

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In her debut novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Adelle Waldman takes on a figure all too familiar to humanities students, aspiring writers and anyone anywhere near Brooklyn: the serious, literary young man. Young Werner in Buddy Holly glasses, if you will.

Because, let's face it: as a nation, we're obsessed with smart, well-educated, upper-middle-class white men with literary leanings and the semi-autobiographical novels they write about themselves. Franzen, the Great American Novelist, fits here, as do Philip Roth and the other Great Male Narcissists of post-war fiction, whose characters are often "self-obsessed, self-recriminating, somehow lovable jerk[s].

Nathaniel, Waldman's subject, is "bookish, ambitious" and a giant bundle of anxious self-awareness, especially in regards to "his stylish torment, his self-seriousness, his dangerous admixture of grandiosity and insecurity, and old fashioned condescension toward women gussied up as sensitivity, his maddeningly irony, his very specific way of treating people badly while worrying about liberal politics," notes Katie Roiphe in her review of the novel for Slate. He's tall, has some game with the ladies, lives in Brooklyn and has just signed a six-figure book deal. He's basically that guy, but a lot more successful. 

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If the idea of a female author, someone who's probably dated her fair share of bookish jerks, calling Nathaniel-types out on their shenanigans appeals to you, then keep looking. "What could've been an American Psycho for hipsters feels like a traditional romance," Melissa Maerz wrote over at Entertainment Weekly. This is primarily a love story, set against the same backdrop as Girls. Indeed, this synopsis from Publishers Weekly reads more like the plot to an indie rom-com than a nuanced critique of the modern man: 

[Nathaniel's] well-intentioned missteps with reporter Juliet and editorial assistant Elisa earn him tireless tsk-tsk reprimands and a rep for being “the kind of guy women call an asshole.” When he begins dating a seemingly perfect-for-him writer named Hannah, we wonder whether Nate will adapt or strike out yet again. Hannah is nice, smart, and makes him feel “at home,” but will Nate, who seems to feed off misconnecting with women, make the right relationship move—or is it yet another “dick move”?

Actually, scratch that indie bit. One of the big studios should get the rights to Love Affairs ASAP. Love Affairs is more of a modern comedy of manners set in hook up culture than a critique of the type of sexism that exists amongst the liberal elite. It's essentially saying, "this is the way the world is now; boys will be boys."

But literary boys have been taking flack as of late. Most notably, Moira Weigel and Mal Ahern ripped Men-Children a new one in a recent New Inquiry piece. The Man-Child, as described through a series of meme-worthy putdowns, "has two moods: indecision, and entitlement to this indecisiveness," "can’t even commit to saying no" and "wants you to know that you should not take him too seriously, except when you should."

This description could easily apply to all millennials, but the New Inquiry leands towards hating on serious, intellectuals guys who would make horrible, awful boyfriends. (Whether they make good writers is another question; can you imagine Hemingway living in Brooklyn? Didn't think so.) That's a good start. Now maybe we'll seeing a good take on why the indecisive, neurotic and self-absorbed Hannah Horvaths of fiction are equally undateable.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.