Adelle Waldman’s first novel is an insightful and probing look inside the mind of the casually cruel man. Our correspondent ponders his own life in chatting with her about writing and Twitter.
Adelle Waldman’s (@adellewaldman) The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. was one of the best new books I read last year. It could easily have been otherwise. The story of a young male novelist who is selfish and occasionally cruel but not at all without scruples or conscience, it ran the risk, on the one hand, of being a man-eating diatribe and on the other, of alienating readers with the specificity and potential solipsism of the literary milieu in which it is set. Instead, it proved psychologically insightful, criticising and sympathising with its characters in equal measure, a modest debut concerned less with ensuring the pre-eminence of its author than with honestly and fairly exploring the pain that one both causes and receives the course of one’s early romantic and sexual adventures.
The book is notable for its sense of balance, refusing to take sides or apportion too much blame. Or rather it apportions blame proportionally, without an agenda. As Tennessee Williams famously said of A Streetcar Named Desire and its characters: “There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people. Some are a little better or a little worse, but all are activated more by misunderstanding than malice.”
This is certainly true of the titular character, Nate, who enters a relationship with another young writer named Hannah before essentially dashing their relationship upon the rocks for reasons neither of them completely understand. It would be difficult to argue that Nate is especially repugnant; he makes bad decisions, sometimes knowingly, occasionally with a sense of inevitability — the tale of the scorpion and the frog comes to mind, with its moral that one’s nature cannot help but trump one’s intentions — but he is far more than a gross caricature of mere male callousness. Indeed, both the character and his actions are rendered with more subtlety — I would say more honesty — than other recent portraits of his type: David Foster Wallace’s hideous men, Keith Gessen’s sad young literary ones, and so on. These authors’ depictions of literary, college-educated types feel almost like fictional confessions, self-flagellating and repentant, apologies offered to women on behalf of self-evidently guilty bastards everywhere. “We know we’re terrible,” these authors seem to say, “and for that reason we are in fact less terrible.” Waldman studiously avoids such sensationalism and exaggeration. Her protagonist is anything but a parody or a grotesque.
“There was a wonderful essay by Elaine Blair in the New York Review of Books,” Waldman told Crikey, “about what she calls a ‘new deal’ between young male novelists and American readers. Her idea is that male novelists are so wary of being seen as misogynists, a la Updike, Roth and company, that they go to elaborate lengths to distance themselves from their characters.
“Blair highlights the creation of ‘loser’ protagonists — she mentions Gary Shteyngart, Michel Houllebecq and Jonathan Franzen, in particular — rather than outright male villains. But I think the underlying issues might be similar: both types of male characters are ways for male authors to circumvent charges of misogyny.”
“When you see the loser-figure in a novel, what you are seeing is a complicated bargain that goes something like this: yes, it is kind of immature and boorish to be thinking about sex all the time and ogling and objectifying women, but this is what we men sometimes do and we have to write about it. We fervently promise, however, to avoid the mistake of the late Updike novels: we will always, always, call our characters out when they’re being self-absorbed jerks and louts. We will make them comically pathetic, and punish them for their infractions a priori by making them undesirable to women, thus anticipating what we imagine will be your judgments, female reader. Then you and I, female reader, can share a laugh at the characters’ expense.”
It is arguable that Waldman’s status as a female novelist relieved her of having to make such a deal with her readers. “Writing from the perspective of a protagonist who, by dint of his gender, is very clearly not me probably helped me to keep myself out of it and allowed me to be more objective and keep my focus where I wanted it to be,” she said.
But the self-avowed fan of the classics also says this objectivity had as much to do with taste as anything else. The simple fact of the matter is that the sort of fiction she likes to write is also and inevitably the sort of fiction she likes to read.
“Years of reading psychologically incisive 19th-century novels made it possible for me to write my novel,” Waldman said. “I learned a lot about people from those books that I don’t think I would have known or guessed at had I read primarily contemporary novels, which I think by and large are not as good in terms of psychology. I think too many contemporary novels have only one well-developed character, and that’s usually the protagonist or author stand-in. For me, as a novelist very much interested in the psychological, I wanted to bring to life various minds and the friction between them.
“In my experience, the world is full of guys like Nate. They aren’t outright villains and, in spite of not being the best-looking or most manly of guys, they’re not losers, either. They’re actors on the sexual stage who have the power to reject women as well as be rejected by them. I was very much motivated to make the book feel as true to life as possible, which meant that I didn’t want characters to be overly idealised, or turned into monsters. I wanted to work in the more nebulous gray area in which I think real life operates.”
Ironically, Waldman has been criticised for precisely this reason, particularly as regards her depiction of various female characters in the novel. She shrugs such criticisms off. “If I created a fictional world in which Nate only encountered women whom he felt were perfectly appealing, it wouldn’t ring true to men,” she said. “Men wouldn’t see their experience reflected in the book. Nate isn’t always fair in his judgments, but I think he, like anyone else, doesn’t behave the way he does in a vacuum.”
It is fair to say that I, for one, saw my experience reflected in the book; I underlined more of Waldman’s sentences than I would like to admit, all of which could have been directly transcribed thoughts from my early 20s, or else pointed commentaries on them:
“Contrary to what these women seemed to think, he was not indifferent to their unhappiness. And yet he seemed, in spite of himself, to provoke it.”
“[H]e felt no slackening in the pace with which indifference, even distaste, was overwhelming everything else he felt for her.”
“Nate considered making a joke about how lying in wait for him on the streets of New York was an army of hostile women.”
“He wondered whether he was flawed on some deep level …”
I found myself wondering how many brief interviews with hideous men — men like me — Waldman had conducted while writing the novel. The answer was, of course, none.
“I’ve always had male friends and brothers — and I’m married to a guy — but I didn’t interview any men,” she said. “The kinds of things I wanted to get at are not, I don’t think, the kinds of things that are likely to be elicited in an interview. They aren’t necessarily things that one is fully conscious of but are rather more reflexive. I thought that if I asked men the kinds of questions I was most interested in — about their emotional state and romantic behaviour — I’d either get ‘I don’t know’ or answers that sounded plucked from therapy: ‘I’m ambivalent about relationships because my father was cold and distant when I was growing up.’ And I had faith in my own ability to create Nate’s mental state from my imagination. I figured that men could then weigh in after on whether or not I was accurate, but it was a challenge I was eager to take on.
“I started with certain behaviours or tendencies in mind. Things that seemed stereotypically male, like ambivalence about wanting a relationship, waiting a while to call a woman after a successful date, losing interest in a relationship as it becomes more serious, and so on. My aim was to try to work out the thought process and emotional state that might underlie this type of tendency. Nate is not a monster — he is not motivated to act in ways because they will be hurtful to women — so I wanted to come up with a rationale for him that seemed plausible and was fair to him, that didn’t make him out to be worse than I think he is.”
A graduate of Brown University, where she studied history, and Columbia’s famous journalism school, Waldman’s background is in newspapers. “But while writing the book, I worked mostly as a tutor to high school students,” she said. “I wasn’t able to balance a demanding journalism job with the focus it took to write the novel. Tutoring was easier in that sense. It was something I could do for money.”
Despite living in Brooklyn, where the novel is set, she doesn’t exactly run in the literary circles in which her characters move and didn’t interact with many other authors while she was writing. “While I knew a lot of writers while I worked on the novel, I knew very few novelists. Most of the people I knew were journalists. Nonetheless, my writer friends were very important to me, mostly because they believed in what I was doing,” she said.
“I had never published a word of fiction before this book. I was in my thirties and had no agent, let alone a publisher. There were times, over the course of more than four years, when I felt hopeless. But I gave it to various friends and my husband, who is a nonfiction writer, chapter by chapter. Their kind words and enthusiasm helped me to keep going.”
While Waldman considers her own Twitter feed “pretty boring”, she describes the literary Twittersphere more generally as “vibrant”.
“I mainly use Twitter to let people know about my upcoming events and readings,” she said. “Sometimes I tweet about books I like. But I don’t often get very personal. My most popular tweet, judging from number of responses and favourites, was one where I complained that I had just learned that no alcohol would be served on the Kuwait Airlines flight I was taking from New York to London. I got a lot of sympathy for that one. But usually I’m more buttoned-up on Twitter.
“But there’s so much sly wit out there. And I think Twitter has opened up opportunities for people who might have otherwise been outside the literary conversation: people who maybe don’t live in New York or lived in New York but were not in certain literary circles. I think certain people have become well-known and respected through Twitter, to a degree that might have been harder to achieve pre-Twitter.
“The drawback of Twitter for me is that I often become anxious about responding to people who tweet at me about my book. I’m very grateful when people say kind things about my book, but I also get very shy and don’t know what to say in response. I also feel pressure to tweet about events I am doing, but I often feel self-conscious about being self-promotional.”
Which is why I’m going to promote her next one for her: Waldman’s long short story — “almost a novella” — is set in the world of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. and is told from the perspective of one of its most interesting characters, Nate’s outspoken Israeli friend Aurit. New Year’s will be published by Picador as an e-book next month. The Australian paperback of The Love Affairs of Nathniel P. will be released on April 24.
*More of Adelle Waldman’s views on being a female novelist, Brooklyn and its writers and the importance of literary circles on the website …
On being a female novelist …
On the one hand, I think I’ve been very lucky compared to many women novelists. I think more men read my book because it’s told from the perspective of a male character, and while that’s good for me, it’s obviously problematic on a deeper level; a woman shouldn’t have to write from a male perspective to be given the same kind of hearing that a male author would be.
At the same time, I think I did contend with a lot of scepticism that a book by a woman and about a subject as seemingly trivial as dating among well-educated writers could be serious and intelligent — that is, intelligent in an interesting way. I think some people, knowing about the novel, probably expected it to be more doctrinaire in its feminism or one-dimensional: an ex-girlfriend’s revenge fantasy. I think that others wondered if I could pull off a male protagonist, and figured that if I did, Nate would be a sort of effeminate man, an outlier, with visible marks of his female creator, rather than a more broadly representative and fully convincing one. My hope was that, by pulling off something more sophisticated and less easy to categorise, I’d implode ideas that I think some men have about women’s intellectual and aesthetic tendencies, ideas similar to the ones Nate articulates in my book when he speculates that women are less interested in “disinterested aesthetic judgment” and more likely to judge a work of art by its message.
On Brooklyn and its writers …
I set the book in Brooklyn, among writers, because it’s a world that I know. It’s where I live. My interest is so much oriented in the psychological that I didn’t want to spend a lot of time researching a whole other milieu — the world of lawyers in Cleveland, Ohio, say. I wanted to focus on exploring Nate’s thinking about and treatment of women, and that was hard enough. Even with a setting that was very familiar to me, it took me more than four years to write and revise what is a pretty short book. If I’d set it some place else, it would have taken another couple years, at least.
I’ve been really gratified and heartened by the response to the book in Brooklyn. A friend of mine from high school who is not in the writing world — he’s an academic — read an advance copy and worried that I’d alienate all my friends here and have to leave Brooklyn. That hasn’t been the case. Perhaps people have more humour about themselves than we like to think? In any case, the response has been very warm. And I’m glad. I love Brooklyn, and though I meant to poke gentle fun at in the book, I don’t actually think the book is a harsh satire.
On the importance of literary circles …
I don’t think being a part of a literary circle helps or hinders one’s work in the deep way, at least in terms of the quality of the work. I think the hardest part of writing a novel is writing a novel — that is, having enough to say that isn’t mere self-justification, and finding the right way to dramatise it and the right words to use. In a deep existential sense, I don’t think there are conditions that make that harder or easier. I think that sometimes when people are frustrated by their inability to write fiction, they blame the fact that they work as critics or their gender or some other factor. I can relate. During my 20s, when I couldn’t write any decent fiction, I certainly looked for causes and wondered if this or that thing was holding me back. But with time, I’ve come to think that it’s just very difficult to write fiction that’s any good. It’s mostly the having something to say part that is hard, I think. I think many of us have a feeling inside that we have a take on the world or an experience we want to express. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is usually enough and sometimes it can hinder one from the difficult work of getting out of one’s head.
As to whether being part of a certain circle helps one to get published, I think the answer to that is probably yes. And it’s unfortunate. But it cuts both ways. I think some people are probably published too soon or too easily because they have connections in the publishing world, and once you’ve published a book, it exists forever with your name on it, even if you later come to regret it.