AW: I don’t know that I have a particular literary work for Nate that I especially looked to; there were books I was responding to, but there was no one that I was modeling him on. What really motivated me to write the book is that I had had these experiences, my friends had, and I just didn’t feel like I saw them… I mentioned Goodbye Columbus, which I love, and there are so many books by men about romance that I thought of, that I think are beautifully written; but I also just felt like there was an experience that I had, and my roommates had, that was getting lost a little bit, that it wasn’t in our common, collective canon. (And I guess I’m not counting light chick-lit books, because that’s not what I read, anyway.) I felt that there are many books by male authors that feature a charming, lovable, really smart protagonist who’s come to the city and conquered it with his intellect and have a few dalliances with women, and be great, but I felt like the experience of women was getting lost in those stories. In some of the books that I’m thinking of, I feel like the women characters are presented very unsympathetically, so as readers we don’t really sympathize with them when the male protagonist treats them badly: he decides that they’re just a nagging shrew and moves on, and they’re presented as nagging shrews, so we think, “Good riddance!”
Then there are books where the romantic stuff doesn’t even necessarily come into play, but I wanted to respond to that, too, because for a lot of men — and men like Nate… thinking about this stuff is a little uncomfortable for them. I think Nate would rather be thinking about abstract intellectual ideas, and politics, and economics, and Marxism than he would prefer to be thinking about his relationship with Hannah or the nitty-gritty of dating because it makes him feel bad and guilty and uncomfortable and confused. There are a lot of books by male authors that I admire but that avoid a lot of this stuff, so in a sense Nate wasn’t modeled after one character, but he was a response to the fact that I felt like a lot of characters I saw in literature were somehow different from the men I saw in life. I wanted to reconcile that chasm a little bit.
I think that if Nate wrote this book about himself, it would not be about his love affairs with the women he dated, and it would not mention taking note that Hannah was “a 7 out of 10,” and it wouldn’t have him wonder at moments if he could still get it up for a casual hookup. If Nate wrote the book it would be all about his great flights of intellectual fancy, and it would just have a few valiant successful sexual escapades, and then he’d ride off into the sunset with some hot women at the end.
What interests him is really different from what interests me. Many of my favorite books are 19th century literature — like George Eliot, Jane Austen, Stendhal — and I’m not sure that those are Nate’s favorite books. I don’t know that I know what his favorite books are. In the book it mentions that he’s reading biographies of Becket — oh wait, did I take that out? I don’t remember if that’s still in the book. He used to be reading some Becket. I pictured Nate being very well-read — and not just in a pretentious way: very earnestly well-read, and enjoys reading seriously and cares about it. I gravitate to books that are very psychological and probably have relationships at their center; I think that Nate, like many men like him, might be more drawn to books that are more modernist tradition, more experimental, from David Foster Wallace, or Pynchon, or Becket — things that are more showy with language and less focused on the psychological.
NB: Since you mentioned George Eliot — and in light of the recent J.K. Rowling revelation — did you ever consider assuming a male pen name, just to see how it would affect the novel’s reception?
AW: If my agent had said that that would have been a better way to do it, I would have seriously considered it, but no one brought that up. And it’s become so much of the marketing hook of the book — that I’m a woman and it’s from the male perspective. So I think that from my literary agent and publisher’s point of view, they really just wanted to use that to the book’s advantage. I didn’t feel like I knew enough to argue with it — and I didn’t even want to know that much, at that point: I guess I just sort of hoped to focus as much on writing the best novel I could and then leave the marketing of it to others, so that was a call that I made. But none of the people on my team ever suggested that we should do that; if they had, I’m sure I would have thought about it, the pros and cons.
NB: You mentioned in an interview at Gawker that you see yourself at somewhat of an advantage in that “there are things that men can’t actually say in their novels because they would be accused of misogyny,” while you, as a female writer, are freer to write an honest male perspective. Do see Nate’s own writing inhibited in the same way as your male contemporaries?
AW: I think if it’s true for men generally, it would be true for Nate. And that’s just a theory, I don’t know that that is true — I think it probably is. Men, men like Nate, who want to be nice people, they believe in the values of feminism in a basic sense, and they might harbor all sorts of thoughts that they don’t want to say for a number of reasons: they don’t want to be disliked and have women be angry with them, and also because they’re a bit ashamed of the thoughts, as well — or ashamed of some of them, actually. Some of Nate’s thoughts about women’s writing, I don’t think he’s ashamed of: I think he earnestly believes them and knows better than to say them aloud because he wants to be invited to dinner parties.
NB: Do you see our postfeminist hyperconcern over political correctness eroding modern literature? I’m just wondering if part of what established the past generation of great (Jewish) American writers was their unabashed portrayal of the male experience — maybe our current values are creating more space for women writers in the next canon?
AW: I think that political correctness means that there are some things that, as writers, we’re reluctant to say. But I also tend to think that in every point in time and every society there are things that one is not supposed to say, that one is reluctant to say, and they’re just different. Like now, we can talk really candidly about sex — no one has a problem with that — but not necessarily our attitudes toward it, whereas in the Victorian era you could be as sexist as you wanted, but you couldn’t read about sex. There being areas that are taboo is a constant, even though what the taboo is changes. When it comes to the previous generation, of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, I think that as much as they could be really candid about some things — and, certainly, misogyny, and being very critical of women — without too, too much in the way of repercussions, I guess some part of me thinks that there are always things that feel very hard to say, and that would have been true for Roth and Bellow, too. It might have been a different set of things, but maybe they were so invested in being these figures who were sort of nodomesticated men urging the values of the sexual revolution that some of their more conventional thoughts and their more bourgeois yearnings might have felt shameful, and they might have been reluctant to write about both.
Find all three parts of the interview here.
Nat Bernstein is the former Manager of Digital Content & Media, JBC Network Coordinator, and Contributing Editor at the Jewish Book Council and a graduate of Hampshire College.