X Close

The rise of the literary noble savage They can be 'problematic' without being cancelled

Wokeness requires a degree of repression (Orjan F. Ellingvag/Corbis via Getty Images)

Wokeness requires a degree of repression (Orjan F. Ellingvag/Corbis via Getty Images)


January 21, 2022   5 mins

According to elite cultural consensus, the great villain in America is the white male, so it’s only logical that publishing would run the toxic literary bad boys off. But this hatred is only levelled at the American man. Other talents have had better luck.

Take Roberto Bolaño. When he first appeared on the American scene in 2003 with the English translation of By Night in Chile, he was hailed by Susan Sontag as a major voice of Latin American literature. But it wasn’t until the posthumous publication of The Savage Detectives in 2007 that he became a household name among the smart set. That novel, a towering work of literary virtuosity, would go on to be a national bestseller. Bolaño, who’d died in 2004 at the age of 50 from complications due to a liver condition, became that rarest of breeds — the writer who goes by a single name.

In 2008, his short stories began to appear in The New Yorker, and the same year saw the English translation of Bolaño’s masterpiece, the 900-page 2666, completing the cycle of his major works. But the publishing world was hungry for new Bolaño, whether he was around to write it or not. More than fifteen books have been published since 2666, the most recent in February 2021. Just when you think the last novella or half-finished short story collection has been unearthed from his hard drive, another one is announced. Like Charles Bukowski, Bolaño has found a fame in death he would’ve scoffed at during his life, which he spent as a struggling poet in Chile, Mexico and Spain.

Bolaño is worthy of his place in the canon, but he would’ve had a harder time earning it had he been an American. For the US literary establishment, Bolaño’s foreignness was central to his appeal. At a time when the literary Jonathans — Franzen and Safran Foer — and what remained of the old white males reigned supreme, here was a dead Chilean poet whose seedy, often macho stories of Latin American depravity offered white liberal readers a chance to wallow in grit and grime.

Wokeness wasn’t yet a factor then, but the winds were blowing in that direction. Bolaño offered an outlet for New Yorker readers who wanted some of the “toxic masculinity” — sex, violence, and machismo — that they’d previously gotten from the likes of Roth and Mailer. Bolaño, a foreign noble savage, was the perfect guy for the role.

Bolaño’s stature has only grown over the past 20 years, even as the literary world became increasingly feminised; both readers and editors are now mostly women. It’s a trend that’s been picked up on, and even lamented, by the Times, the TLS, and the Observer. It’s almost impossible to find debut novels by American men, and especially white men, about the plight of heterosexual males.

With foreign writers, it’s a different story. Like Bolaño, the French novelist Michel Houellebecq and his Norwegian contemporary Karl Ove KnausgĂ„rd, have epitomised the rise of the literary noble savage. These two have built careers on “problematic” subject matter that would get an American-born writer cancelled. Why are imports allowed to thrive?

A European like KnausgÄrd, perhaps the whitest man in existence, can still be embraced by the publishing industry. His autobiographical My Struggle novels, which chronicle his everyday life in tedious and often brilliant detail, are almost pathologically self-indulgent. They are also, to put it lightly, controversial. The narrator, a KnausgÄrd stand-in named Karl Ove KnausgÄrd, rants against political correctness and feminist parenting, describes his attraction to his students while teaching at a high school, relates his anger at being falsely accused of rape, and, in general, details his sexual proclivities and hang-ups in all their quotidian repulsiveness.

But one gets the sense that the books are popular among elites not in spite, but because of the way they muck around in male sexuality. Take one look at the grizzled and handsome KnausgĂ„rd and it’s obvious that there is a psychosexual element at play here. Wokeness requires a degree of repression, which in turn necessitates an outlet for release. The sexual itch must be scratched in a non-problematic manner, and since the noble savages are foreign curiosities who can’t be expected to internalise the progressive ways of America, they get a free pass. The elite reader can be titillated by KnausgĂ„rd’s grubby masculinity while keeping his or her conscience clean.

The American male novelist, by contrast, is despised not for his toxic masculinity but because he ought to know better. Unlike the noble savage, the American male is expected to understand what is and isn’t problematic — he went to college, after all. For him, masculinity is something to be condemned and renounced. The embodiment of this emasculated ideal is Ben Lerner, a master of self-flagellation whose 2019 novel The Topeka School “decodes white male rage”. Pull up any picture of Lerner and he looks just about ready to weep.

American men who deviate from the Lerner school are treated like Callan Wink, whose debut, August, a coming-of-age novel set in Montana and Michigan was panned in the New York Times in no small part due to its flirtations with masculine bravado. “Despite his abundance of literary talent,” the reviewer teases, “we’ll be sure not to mistake [Wink] for some effete literary type.” The reviewer’s problem, of course, is that Wink, who lives in Montana and writes about Western men, is far too close to the American savages of old. Wink graduated from an MFA program and has published stories in The New Yorker. That means he got the memo, which makes his defiance unforgivable.

The case of Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Diaz is another cautionary tale: this time about what happens to writers who make the leap from noble savage to upstanding member of the American literati. Diaz, who was born in the Dominican Republic, became a celebrity in 1996 with the publication of Drown, a short story collection documenting the gritty island life of his homeland. But as his fame grew, and especially after he won the Pulitzer for The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, something funny happened: he was civilised. He landed a teaching gig at MIT, and even if he still spat out his patented Dominican slang at readings, it was clear that he’d been domesticated. Diaz was an American writer.

But with Americanisation comes cancellation. In 2018, Diaz became the subject of a #MeToo campaign, led by former students and writers whom he had mentored. He was accused of overstepping boundaries, pushing himself on female writers and getting handsy. Blinded by the awards and the fawning press, Diaz failed to realise that the sort of behaviour that was indulged in a Dominican was off-limits for a Yank.

Bolaño is still pumping out books nearly two decades after his death, but many a noble savage has joined him in recent years, including his countryman Alejandro Zambra and the Argentinian CĂ©sar Aira. And they just keep coming. The latest in the genre, The Women I Love, by the Italian Francesco Pacifico, came out in December, and is described by the publisher as “a provocative and bracing send-up of modern masculinity”. That’s publicity speak for: a noble savage Italian dude fucks around for 300 pages, magnificently unafraid of committing a microaggression.

For American novelists, the news is bleak but not hopeless. You may need to neuter your writing. You may need to show exquisite sensitivity to the ever-shifting rules around race and gender. You may need to conduct your personal life with the utmost progressive decorum. But if you change your name and flee the country, you can write whatever you want.


Alex Perez is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Perez_Writes

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

21 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

How dreadful to watch the bonfire of the vanities as the woke Liberals set out to destroy the great art, history, scientific, philosophical, industrial, political, legal, achievements of the Western male. They have no idea of the backward and savage world it would be without their genius in creating what we now enjoy. No idea as the Postmodernist Left/Liberal have rewritten history, as they write out the contributions of the White Male, and so it is lies, ignorance, bigotry, and self loathing, being taught with amazing success.

Ian Gribbin
Ian Gribbin
2 years ago

The feminized publishing industry has seen to it that I haven’t read fiction for decades, aside from Houellebecq.

Call me a misogynist but I haven’t read a single work by a female that hasn’t been cloying in some way.

I tried to read Austen again after hating it at school
30 yrs on
it’s worse than I remember it as a kid.

The desperation to promote female authors has resulted in a massive dilution and lowering of standards.

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Gribbin

Try Mary Gaitskell? Might not be your cup of tea, but I defy you to find her cloying.

There is certainly a lot of pap out there at the moment, but I’m not sure we should blame women. Plenty of male-authored pap as well. Plenty of male editors/agents bowing to the political wind.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Gribbin

Shameless plug for my latest novel: The Fortune Teller: Stull, Graham: 9780993265020: Amazon.com: Books
🙂

Jerry Jay Carroll
Jerry Jay Carroll
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

When you finish that — looks good from the peek I took — try this: https: //www.amazon.com/Jack-Nimble-Jerry-Jay-carroll/dp/0989826945/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1642872594&sr=1-4
An ex-Marine finds Hollywood more treacherous and dangerous than a battlefield.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Gribbin

Have you tried Enid Blyton?

Last edited 2 years ago by Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Cat Fan
Cat Fan
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Gribbin

Try Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian is fantastic.

Lord Rochester
Lord Rochester
2 years ago
Reply to  Cat Fan

Indeed, The Road is the tenderest and most heart-breakingly positive depiction of a father/son relationship I have ever encountered.

In poetry, Don Patterson often centres the male/father’s viewpoint in a refreshing and intelligent way.

And there’s always Coetzee, too.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

Like I’ve repeatedly said, people on the political left are always inveterate and irredeemable racists.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

Correct.

Katy Hibbert
Katy Hibbert
2 years ago

This is particularly true of black writers, whose work can be misogynist, racist or just tripe and still win prize after prize.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

I am a writer. At the present moment, I am sitting in a public library typing on my laptop, attached to the back of which is a sticker bearing the legend “FVCK BEING WOKE”.

Fredrick Urbanelli
Fredrick Urbanelli
2 years ago

For sure, the number of female authors has increased exponentially in the last 20 years, as has the number of awful and unread books. This is especially true in the US. Schlocky, trivial stories about relationships crudely disguised as serious fiction or detective stories or mysteries. American literature is at it’s lowest point ever. Diversity, inclusivity and lame mediocrity.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
2 years ago

Thank you for that article.

Raymond Inauen
Raymond Inauen
2 years ago

This isn’t on the topic, but I had to get it off my chest face.
Lately I have noticed something: I have masks stashed all over the place. I don’t have a jacket that doesn’t have at least two or three masks in various pockets. I’ve even found a mask in one of my sneakers. I’ve found masks that were washed in the laundry and seemed completely intact when I took them out. I have masks in all my travel bags and suitcases (I only travel when it is safe to do so, and only in my own country ;-). I even have masks ready in my drone case. I have masks in the glove box, trunk and under the seat and I also have masks ready in my Vespa travel box case. I have masks at work and I have masks at home, there doesn’t seem to be a place where there isn’t a mask. But when I need one, they always seem to be missing. I’ve even found missing masks, so if you’re missing your mask, let me know, we can do a DNA test to see if it’s yours. I never thought I would have so many masks in my life. I wear a mask even though I know it’s superficial and doesn’t really stop the spread of the virus. I even sneezed once and my mask flew off, which was embarrassing because when I picked up the mask and put it back on, everyone was only more disgusted. I mean, what are you going to do, you have to do what everybody else is doing, whether it makes sense or not. Am I the only person who is sick of all of this?
What’s your mask story?

William Hickey
William Hickey
2 years ago
Reply to  Raymond Inauen

You have a Vespa?

Raymond Inauen
Raymond Inauen
2 years ago
Reply to  William Hickey

Yes, my Italian two wheeled darling! Always there when I need her, follows me everywhere I go! Wouldn’t know what to do without her.

Jerry Jay Carroll
Jerry Jay Carroll
2 years ago
Reply to  Raymond Inauen

Think of them as face diapers.

Paul K
Paul K
2 years ago

Brilliant piece. More please.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

The ‘Nouvelle’ was created for bored 18th century women with time in their hands. Thanks to the absurd Leavis and others it was promoted to the status of moral high art. No wonder Classics scholars and many others balked at establishing Literature degrees. Imagine studying light entertainment? Of course in the long run they were right. However a number of men used the form to write often remarkable texts. It has now returned to its rightful place as an irrelevant pastime for bored women.

Jerry Jay Carroll
Jerry Jay Carroll
2 years ago

It’s not hard to understand why the American male has turned from fiction to video games.