Chuck Palahniuk's confused gender politics are stranger than fiction
On the Internet, there’s a very simple shorthand for an admission of wrongdoing: deletion. Publish a regrettable blog post and you can strike it from the record—or try to, anyway.
Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club and likely the sole living writer who can be compared to a rock star, did just this when a Tumblr Q&A meant to promote his new book went awry. Asked how he felt about his work being taught in college courses, he offered this puzzling reply:
That fact that Fight Club is being taught seems—to me—to underscore the dearth of novels that explore male issues. The past years have given us so many books, from The Color Purple to The Joy Luck Club to How to Make an American Quilt, which depict women in groups and relationship, but almost no books depicting social models for men. That's my two cents worth.
Soon enough, he received a follow-up “question,” this one dripping with irony: “Thank you, Chuck, for standing up for male writers, a desperately marginalized group.” For whatever reason, Palahniuk took the remark at face value and continued to dig himself a nice, deep grave.
Consider that reading has become a mostly female pastime and that males are being better served by other media: the web, film, gaming. Of course publishers will skew toward the most profitable audience. Otherwise the world is still chasing the golden demographic of the ‘young male.’ If male writers could better serve that readership, it would explode. We’re only marginalized if we accept that status. What troubles me is the seemingly high number of younger male suicides: David Foster Wallace, Alexander McQueen, plus older men such as Spalding Grey [sic] and Hunter S. Thompson, not to mention ‘accidental’ deaths like Heath Ledger and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Tumblr wasted no time ridiculing Palahniuk for his comments; Reddit obligingly played devil’s advocate in blasting these “butthurt” critics. The original posts vanished from Palahniuk’s site but lived on in thousands of incredulous reblogs. There was no resealing this can of worms.
I find so much wrong with Palahniuk’s worldview as described above—holding up 20- and 30-year-old books as indicators of current trends, believing fiction doesn’t address “male issues,” construing artists’ suicides as chromosomal events and the artists themselves as manhood’s martyrs—that it’s tough to know where to start. So let’s take it from the beginning.
I’ll admit to being taken in by the bitter surrealism of novels like Choke, Lullaby, and Survivor in high school. But Diary felt off to me, and by the time I picked up Haunted during a college semester abroad, I knew Palahniuk and I had forever parted ways. The thrilling riffs had been subsumed by terse repetition, the transgressive insights by gross-out schlock. This isn’t to suggest Palahniuk’s talents had faded, just that literature needs to hit you at the right time and place to succeed, and this particular window had closed. For many readers, it never will.
This was evident in the admiring queries Palahniuk received during his promotional stint: “You're the reason i read books now,” gushed one fan, while others thanked him profusely for fiction that had greatly bettered or even saved their lives. That he’s become an icon for those who feel squelched by society and pushed to their spiritual limit—also a suitable description of his protagonists—means his moments of generosity and wisdom are that much more valuable. When asked to recommend books by his peers, he named an admired trio of female writers.
But the Palahniuk fandom’s tendency to hang on his every utterance, and their noted inability to parse his outlandish stories as satire, make it twice as annoying when he’s wishy-washy about Fight Club’s tricky gloss on gender and gospel status in the men’s rights community or generalizes about the state of publishing as it relates to masculinity. As one Tumblr blogger lamented, it’s easy to laugh at his “oppressed white male” schtick, but “so many angry young men actually listen to him and feel validated in their anger by his bullshit. It just makes me feel sad and afraid.”
Palahniuk didn’t ask for this responsibility, but it’s his all the same. And there’s a danger in his willingness to play the voiceless victim when he occupies a seat of power few writers will ever occupy: it’s there in his petulant, dismissive reply to a negative review, and it’s there in the explanation of white maleness provided by Stranger Than Fiction, his essay collection.
As a white man, you can live your whole life never not fitting in. You never walk into a jewelry store that sees only your black skin. You never walk into a bar that sees only your boobs. To be Whitie is to be wallpaper. You don’t draw attention, good or bad.
This isn’t just patently false. It doesn’t merely sweep aside the realities of classism and culture shock to suggest that white men somehow lack presence on a planet they disproportionately control. Palahniuk here skirts the same canard that animates the terrorist mayhem of Fight Club: the jaundiced idea that men have lost their defining greatness due to a feminizing consumerism they never had a chance to smother in the cradle. How else to read his conclusion that women have shunted male writers aside by daring to throw their dollars at books that speak to them?
If he had crunched the numbers, as VIDA does each year, he’d see that publishing still skews male. When a celebrated novelist like Donna Tartt wins the Pulitzer for fiction, the male backlash is a virtual fait accompli. Palahniuk’s forthcoming Beautiful You, meanwhile, imagines a billionaire bad guy who seeks to enslave women with hyper-addictive sex toys, which, aside from taxing the credulity of your average seventh-grader, sounds like a recapitulation of the same old gonzo anxiety about male obsolescence: “A billion husbands are about to be replaced,” an excerpt gravely informs us. But it’s not enough to suppose that wives are ruled by erotic pleasure; he also has to mockingly appropriate “the overblown language of bodice-ripper romances.”
That’s how Palahniuk understands “female pastimes”: they’re insulating, unserious, and narcissistic diversions that threaten to bring civilization to its knees. He sincerely believes that only a book like Fight Club can hope to pierce the veil of femininity that shrouds the literary scene and awaken men to the possibilities of prose. If that’s true, it’s not down to a “dearth” of contemporary stories that engage the male psyche or publishing houses’ failure to “serve” a demographic hungry for the same. It’s because men continue to suppose that being caught reading a novel is an emasculatory moment. Unless they’re reading a bro-approved name, of course.