Wednesday, July 20, 2022

The End of the "Sad White Man" Novel

One of the dominant literary forms of the 20th century was what people are now calling the Sad White Man Novel. Each of these novels gives us a middle class man who is successful enough – good job, marriage, children, house – but deeply dissatisfied with his mediocre lot in life and yearning to break free. One of the most famous examples was The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson (1955). Wilson gave us an advertising executive – i.e., somebody who has a cool, with-it career – who anguished over the limits of his boring life and fantasized about throwing it over and disappearing onto the open road.

In an interesting essay, John Self identifies the prototype as Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis (1922). Babbitt describes himself as

the perfect office-going executive — a well-fed man in a correct brown soft hat and frameless spectacles, smoking a large cigar, driving a good motor along a semi-suburban parkway. . .
but keeps asking questions like, "What was it all about? What did he want?"

Babbitt's question introduces us to one of the themes of this literature: not only are the central characters unhappy, they don't know what would make them happy. They don't know what they want, or even how to want. In Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road (1961) the narrator's wife urges that they should move to France, where "for the first time in your life you’ll have time to find out what it is you want to do." (They never move, and never find out.) Quite a few phychologically-minded critics have made this absence of authentic desire into the central problem of the modern world. In The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch argued that we have gotten so lost in the thickets of advertising and commerce, so saturated with come-ons, that we not only don't know what we want, we don't understand what an authentic desire would feel like. Edward Teach , as the anonymous blogger at The Last Psychiatrist called himself, wrote about "desiring desire." Porn, Teach thinks, is how we defend ourselves against the unbearable fact that we actually have no desire. 

To people who think this way, and write these books, we are lying to ourselves about what holds us down. Middle class men may say that they feel trapped by obligations: job, spouse, children, familial expectations, but what really traps them is that they don't desire anything enough to make a change.

Of course the one thing these men actually do in such books to shake up their worlds is have affairs, which you might think shows they have desires. Lasch and Teach would disagree, though, and say that pursuing affairs is just a way of concealing from yourself your own lack of desire.

So, anyway, these books are part of a big trend in 20th-century thought, all revolving around the complete inauthenticity of our lives. We have no authentic desires, only those we are told to have, and no authentic selves, just people filling roles in a system we abhor but can't seem to change.

Personally, I always hated these books. I had to read Babbitt for a course in 20th-century American history, and spent the whole time wanting to grab Babbitt and shake him. I tried to read one of John Updike's Rabbit novels once and threw it away after about fifty pages, thinking that if suburban life were really that bad, we'd all be dead by now. I suppose people read them to see other people who feel what you feel, so you understand that to be left empty by your career and marriage and children is something others also experience. Ok, fine, but once that is said, why go on? How did John Updike manage to write thirty novels?

Doesn't it seem strange that these books got so popular? Martin Amis noticed how odd this was in the long view. Tracing the changing identity of literary heroes, he wrote, "First gods, then demi-gods, then kings, then great warriors, great lovers, then burghers and vicars and doctors and lawyers. Then social realism: you. Then irony: me." 

Why not read about heroes? Of course plenty of people did; James Bond was more popular than John Updike. But John Updike won literary awards, and Ian Fleming never did. Somehow the literary culture got obsessed with the Sad White Man novel and made them out to be great works of literature with deep insights and so on. What did that say about our culture?

The point of John Self's essay is to say that this whole tradition is ending, and books like these can't get published any more. In the way of the contemporary world he makes this all about race and sex, and talks about how white male authors are having a hard time getting published. It is probably true that one reason these books are declining is that many Americans just don't want to hear right now about the struggles of the privileged. I, of course, think the White Man business is entirely the wrong framing; John Updike and Ian Fleming were both privileged white men, but their books are hardly in the same category.

I'm just wondering, now, what the praise heaped on those dismal books meant, and what it means that people no longer want to read them. I can imagine what certain kinds of people would say. E.g. the ones who would say we are now too economically insecure for such fantasies, or the ones who think the desperate struggle for justice or civilization is too all-consuming to allow time for them. But those novels were written during the Cold War, which a lot of people thought was pretty important.

Sometimes, maybe, art has a life of its own, and follows certain paths for reasons that have little to do with anything else. If so, I am glad art is moving on. 


David said...

I also detested these novels (or what I heard about them, at least) and wondered why they became such a big thing. The thing is, I'm also not interested in obvious heroism like that in the Bond books. There are other alternatives. I tend to like police procedurals and similar stuff, where the point is to unearth some threat to the bourgeois order, enjoy voyeuristically examining it, and then wipe it away and get dinner. My favorite characters are often more or less contentedly schleppy and/or nerdy. I'm sure this says all sorts of uncomplimentary things about the inauthenticity of my desire, the unactualized state of my being, the falseness of my consciousness, and so forth.

One thing, though: in the only one of these novels that I actually remember reading, Babbitt (assigned in high school), I don't remember getting the sense that Sinclair Lewis identified with the main character or his frustrations. My memory is thinking Sinclair Lewis thought Babbitt was a fool and a loser who pretty much got what he deserved for not being a cool Bohemian artist. As a genre, I always thought these books were less of a cri de coeur and more of a bronx cheer. I suspect I am wrong about this.

The Last Psychiatrist is an interesting fellow. Based on Scott Alexander's review of his book, my understanding is the only humans he thinks *may* have been even a quarter-way worthwhile were the inhabitants of Athens during the three decades or so before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. I think that says a lot about him.

G. Verloren said...

I had the impulse to suggest that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a notable example of this kind of story, and that perhaps we ought to call them "Walter Mitty" stories...

...but then I thought a bit about it, and no, that's not right: Walter Mitty wasn't really unhappy, and even if he were, he KNEW what would make him happy and what he secretly wanted. The things he wanted were ludicrous and impossible, but he knew exactly what they were - and more importantly, he knew exactly how ludicrous and impossible they were, and it didn't really bother him.

Walter Mitty wasn't actually unhappy at all - he was just someone with an unexciting life who enjoyed losing himself in escapist fantasy, ideally of his own creation. He's a dreamer, and an idle one at that. He isn't bothered by his life, he just enjoys dramatic imagination too. In the modern day, he'd probably be the sort of older man who plays Dungeons and Dragons with like-minded nerds every other weekend.

On reflection, Walter Mitty seems to almost be a kind of opposite of the "Sad White Men" stories.

G. Verloren said...


Why not read about heroes? Of course plenty of people did; James Bond was more popular than John Updike. But John Updike won literary awards, and Ian Fleming never did. Somehow the literary culture got obsessed with the Sad White Man novel and made them out to be great works of literature with deep insights and so on. What did that say about our culture?

I'd say that it tricks people into confusing the incredibly insular "literary culture" with "our culture", id est, the collective culture of society.

Clearly, as you note, society itself was far more enthralled with James Bond than John Updike. So what does it matter what a handful of gatekeeping snobs thought, or who they gave "awards" to?

It's much like the insufferable disconnect between the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the actual movie-going public. You've got a heavily biased, hugely self-selected bunch of crusty old film industry dinosaurs using the Academy Awards as a means of patting each other on the back and playing politics among themselves, and for some reason we as a society take the Oscars seriously, despite most everyone taking issue with who ends up winning.

It's that old chestnut of selection bias once again - it's a pretty safe bet (almost a tautology, even) that the "literary culture" became obsessed with "Sad White Man" novels precisely because they appeal to the kind of people who comprise the "literary culture". Books that depict Sad White Men as protagonists would, one presumes, appeal to those who are actual Sad White Men in real life.

And not to be too on the nose about it, but I can pretty easily see how people whose entire lives and careers consist of reading and critiquing literature might be predisposed to feel like they are trapped in a "successful" but boring lifestyle, in which they long for something "greater" and "grander" and "more epic" in their lives, but also lack the drive to actually try to reach for those things, perhaps in large part because they recognize them as unrealistic fantasy.

G. Verloren said...


And of course, none of this is new. Look at Regency Era British literary culture, and their obsession with books about unfulfilled minor aristocrats trapped in the world of the English Countryside. Look at Imperial Era Russian literary culture, and their obsession with books about unfulfilled minor aristocrats trapped in the world of the Imperial court. Look at Joseon Era Korean literary culture, and their obsessions with books about unfulfilled minor aristocrats and officals trapped in the world of the Seowons and the Confucian bureaucracy. Etc.

Heck, even look at the medieval literary traditions of "The Matter of Britain" and "The Matter of France", where despite telling stories of bravery and chivalry and adventure, ultimately both cycles are fundamentally about looking back on a mythical lost past, and lamenting being trapped in the "present day" of the post-Arthurian / post-Carolingian world.

They were only one step removed from directly writing about "Sad Knightly Men", unhappy with their lots in life, bored by their privileged lifestyles, disappointed by the realities of their stations and duties; longing for something more, something greater, wishing they lived in an age where Kings were worthy of loyal service, warfare was honorable and glorious, and the drudgery of playing politics and managing a household and retinue could be avoided; dreaming of retracting their oaths to their unworthy lords and "hitting the road", becoming knights errant, wandering the countryside having adventures and serving the common people to help bring about the utopian ideals of the legendary figures they idealize in Arthur and Charlemagne; but ultimately unwilling or unable to break out of their own lives and change things.

If that sounds like a bit of a stretch to you, I concede it could be. But consider that the novel had not been invented then, and the literature of the age was still drawing massively from troubadour traditions.

...speaking of the invention of the novel, I might also mention figures like Miguel de Cervantes and his contemporaries: look at Post-Reconquista Spanish literature, and their obsession with books about unfulfilled minor aristocrats trapped in the world of... you get the idea.

Shadow said...

I said goodbye to sad sack and whiner, Herzog, when I threw him up against the wall and broke his spine. He deserved it. He deserved worse.

David said...


Your 2/2 post is, I think, very interesting and important. Perhaps all literature, all art must be seen as forms of escape from an unsatisfying reality (and arguably, perhaps literature that's supposed to be "realistic" and inspire "action" is the most escapist of all). Even tragedy may simply be a fantasy of pulling back the veil and hearing profound words that "make us at once think of loneliness and doubt and dread, of waste and dust and emptiness."

I do have some academic quibbles with some of your points about chivalric literature. The chivalric hero is, in my experience of the genre, typically not a frustrated middle ager but a young man on the make. I think the distinction is important, but I also think you're fundamentally right about the expression of unhappiness with the dross of reality (longing for the days when kings were worth serving, maidens were beautiful and chaste--chaste, at least, until they met the reader--etc., etc.). (I'm not sure they ever dream of serving the common people; my experience is that the common people in chivalric literature are most notable by their complete and unremarked absence.)

Don Quixote is a complicated case. It's important to remember that he is said over and over to be, not frustrated, but insane. Also, the whole tone is very, very different from the Sad White Man story. There's a LOT of slapstick, for one thing (and, in contrast to the chivalric lit Cervantes is satirizing, common people are everywhere). And, although the author always remembers his character is a fool, he seems to love him nonetheless. I would maintain my point--made, I admit, with little direct experience of the genre--that in the Sad White Man novel the author's relationship with the character is one of contempt. Perhaps, if I am right about that, and you and John are also right about the SWM being an authorial cri de coeur, then ultimately SWM books are about self-hatred.