A question for your bookshelf – How many angsty white male Brooklynites are too many angsty white male Brooklynites?
In a great deal of respected 21st century literature, it’s as good as become an archetype. They slouch through Flatbush, playing new sports, making unlikely friendships with their bosses and feeling just a bit glum and out of touch with their sense of purpose.
Inevitably, no one understands them, especially their wife – whom they really respect and admire, but feel a little distant from. Or maybe it’s their girlfriend and they’re growing apart. If the author is a little edgy, it’ll be their boyfriend or life partner.
But my God, there’s a lot of them.
I noticed this lately, because I undertook a personal project to read every book on a list (gathered by Brooklynites, go figure) of superior 21st Century books. I felt slightly ashamed of myself that out of approximately 64 books, I’d read only about 16. Yesterday, I just plain quit. I read a lot of books I’m glad I found, even a few excellently done white guy angst books. But my horizon-expanding adventure turned into 50 Shades of White. With a slightly blurred photo of the Brooklyn Bridge on the cover and a penis on top.
Most of the authors are, of course, excellent writers in terms of style and clarity. Notable privilege-blind mansplainer though he may be, Jonathan Franzen can write. So can Paul Auster. And Philip Roth. And David Foster Wallace. Which is part of what irritated me. These men are perfectly capable of crafting a good story. It made me angry that they all offered me such a narrow one. And that their publishers allowed so many barely-distinguishable novels out into the world.
It’s no different if you look back in time. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Leo Tolstoy, Jack Kerouac, Kurt Vonnegut – we are treated to the incarnations of White Dude Angst in every age. I’m tired of it. I know this story. It hasn’t changed very much, except now, our hero owns Apple products and lived through 9/11.
This isn’t a call for more female authors – although I’d love to see more. It’s a call for a greater diversity of experiences in modern literature. Novels are some of the most enduring ways we communicate our lives to one another. Given the rarity of deeply personal conversation, fictional characters are some of the most valuable ambassadors we have for who we are and what we know. So when I set out to read good books and find myself enmeshed in every. single. facet. of one type of life, it doesn’t just irritate me. It worries me.
Every time I read a book about angst that isn’t mine, it forces me out of my own privilege. Reading about my own angst shows me to myself. It cheats the vast majority of everyone out of the benefits of literature when it’s so hard to find varied angsts at the bookstore. Frankly, I don’t care whose fault it is. At this point, I’m going to go ahead and say that if you aren’t fixing it, it’s your fault. So fix it. Even if all you can do is look a little harder for a new story next time you need something to read on the subway. Because you must live in Brooklyn right? Doesn’t everybody?