Sad literary men

*Blog renaissance update: Bennett is also blogging again at It’s a good thing, too, because otherwise the Internet would have never heard about this Corey Worthington person.

*I read my frenemy Keith Gessen’s book ‘All The Sad Young Literary Men‘ finally while RC was visiting from San Francisco, and one night she picked it up off my coffee table and started reading. I was sitting on the other side of the couch, typing with one hand and trying to stop the dog from chewing on the edge of my laptop with the other, so I didn’t notice what she was up to until I heard a snorty noise. “There’s a PICTURE of HEGEL. Why is there a picture of HEGEL?” she said. “There’s also a picture of Lincoln,” I told her.

We sat in silence for a second and then she was like, “There are a LOT of bulleted lists.”

So yes, those two things are all you really need to know about the book, but I’ll tell you a little bit more about it because I am incredibly bored right now.

The book is about three sad young literary men — well, they’re sort of young, they get progressively less young as the book progresses and of course they all start to fret about that a lot, how being in your early 30s means you’re old — named Sam, Mark and Keith. The parts about “Keith” are written in the first person, which helps distinguish him from Sam and Mark, sort of. The men are mostly interchangeable. They all read and write a lot and think a lot about reading and writing and history and politics but mostly they think about girls. In their heads, they often compare the political and historical scenarios they’re studying to the romantic scenarios they’re trying to enact, which is cute the first time and then never again.

They want girls they can’t have, and they don’t want the girls they do have. Their girlfriends, when they’re lucky enough to have them, seem to really be the “sad” ones — they’re unable to get out of bed, they’re on mood stablilizers that inhibit their “intimate functions,” they’re threatening to curl up in the corner with a knife, etc. The other girls they’re pursuing, or halfheartedly pursuing in the absence of better prospects, are vapid and even more interchangeable than the men. The men all know they’re smart but they also know they’re kind of pathetic, and this is supposed to make us like them more, just like in real life. And just like in real life, it sort of half-works. It would work if you could meet these men and they turned out to be cute.

“Duh,” you’re saying, because so far I haven’t told you anything you couldn’t have guessed in ten guesses. Well, here are some unexpected things about the book.

1)There are a couple of really funny lines — one having to do with how any man who went to Harvard, no matter how mediocre, can make it in New York, and another about how a girl said she had to get on a flight early the next morning and “if Sam was any kind of semiotician, this was not a good sign.” Haha!

2)It’s not boring (except some of the parts about Sam’s thoughts about Israel).

All three storylines sort of dribble to a halt, with Sam –or maybe Mark?– discovering something or other about himself and the world in Israel (you have to go to another country to learn about yourself, always) and Mark — or maybe Sam! — discovering that his ex-wife was the one he wanted all along, or possibly I made that up, it has been a whole day since I read the book. Keith’s ending has the most punch: he gets his much-younger girlfriend pregnant and decides that they should keep the baby. He’s ready to grow up!

When I finished reading the last page I texted Keith, “Is Judd Apatow on board yet?” Keith says that’s not very nice and that Judd Apatow didn’t invent babies, but I still think I have a good point. Judd Apatow also tells stories about the kind of men who are smart and funny enough to understand that they’ll never be quite as smart and funny as they wish to be. For these men, women are a category problem, an enduring mystery, a species apart, given to fits of inexplicable hysteria and whimsical, merciful lowerings of standards. They might be unhappy but they could never have the problems these men do; they just wouldn’t even understand how to have such complicated problems. There could never be any point in writing an entire book about the sad young literary women.

5 comments to Sad literary men

  • emily, emily, emily– if we let women be people, where would my semiotician bros deploy the narcissistic self-projections they’re so good at interpreting? you don’t want those harvard educations to go to waste…

    this is good. keep it up!

  • Thanks for an excellent review of a book that sounds pretty stupid. I think it’s hard to be a straight-guy writer/intellectual these days, because there’s often nothing to hang your hat on but being sort of jerky and pretentious, or at least very self-involved; you can’t really be witty (much less revolutionary) because then everyone will think you’re gay. [I'm not sure I'm making any sense here.]

    On another note, I don’t know if it’s me, but the pictures of your puppy (very cute, btw) were like extra-extra-giant, so that basically one corner was filling up the entire monitor. It was kind of “puppyzilla-esque.”

  • jcgc

    Subhumanoids among us persist in letting the world know what they really are. Rampant exhibitionism qualifies as a pandemic in DSM-IV.

  • jcgc

    No way, baby. All or nothing.

  • [...] also be noted that Keith Gessen dated Emily Gould (because all blog roads lead to Emily Gould), and in her take on her “frenemy’s” book, she accuses him (by way of mentioning that she sent him a text message, as she is wont to do in [...]

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