February 2015

John Wilmes

features

An Interview with Laura Kipnis

Operators, scumbags, con men, trespassers, juicers, neurotics, victims, lotharios, humiliation artists, manly men, sex fiends, gropers, cheaters, self-deceivers, haters, critics, men who hate Hillary, and women who hate men -- Laura Kipnis, author of the essay collection Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation, is well versed in the intricate sub-structures of gender typology.

And her book arrives at a timely moment, when the hot take fervor of the blogging world, and cable news before it, conspires to work all thinkers into a tizzy of knee-jerk uproar. While gender is certainly within Kipnis's crosshairs throughout this ranging work -- the hairier half of it, to be sure -- it would be a disservice to pigeonhole her within that world. Kipnis can also be described as a scholar of the modern condition.

In tracing a sort of New Manhood -- an epoch of dudeness that's been underway since roughly when Martin Amis dubbed a "New Man" around 1970, Kipnis notes -- she also breathes life into an act that's increasingly hard to find in 2015: deep, detailed thinking about big things that matter. She reliably finds the cracks in the sweeping male concepts many of us use to guide us through the slog of talking to them, hearing them, viewing them, and generally having to deal with their existence. "It's those jagged edges," Kipnis writes, "where irony fails and male melodrama begins, that these pieces chronicle."

An exhaustive exercise in empathy, Men works overtime to find the merit in the grossest of male figures. And, on its way, it offers a litany of challenges to bourgeoisie ideas of success, and the status quo itself. One of her more memorable riffs is about frequent subject Larry Flynt, who all but disowns the gnarly horndoggery that brought him fame and wealth as soon as his fame and wealth bring him a false, cushy Hollywood narrative of redemption and American exceptionalism. 

Kipnis is deft with the art of moral relativism, looking past artifice and stereotype to find roots we didn't see at base of our shared beliefs. Men is an exciting book for those who like to think.

This book is about more than its title suggests. I thought the form was as important as the subject -- you take a long view on topics that are so often viewed through short views.

I'm so glad you say that. I guess in my career I've written about subjects, in a way -- I mean, I think of myself as an essayist, but when you write about subjects, as I've written about men and women, you sometimes get taken to be sociological. People want to talk about these particular subjects. But I'm also just trying to weave in many other things and be more essayistic, and actually play with the form.

As an author, you always have to be pretty strictly categorized. Reading is too much of an expenditure of time and energy for most people, so they need a category before they invest. Your Wikipedia page connects you to "sexual politics, gender issues, aesthetics, popular culture, and pornography" -- which, to me, basically means "everything." If you were a stand-up comic or a TV personality, you wouldn't need a category (or categories) of thought, but as a writer you do.

Do you have any advice? I could edit my Wikipedia page or rectify my image somehow. I'd be happy to, because I do think that you're right about the myth identification. But I don't know how to address it.

It's hard to address. Maybe do a crazy cable news segment that goes viral.

I'll put that on my list.

I enjoyed your endeavor to find empathy for bastards.

It's kind of like method acting. You have to find this part of yourself that's in sync with some despicable character -- some part of yourself you don't necessarily like admitting to. I thought of myself as method acting as I wrote. I find that you can't stand in judgment for this work -- even a word like "despicable" creates a gulf between yourself and the figure. I'm interested in closing that gap and writing about the points of commonality.

You have a great line about envying men for their extra freedoms -- even if those freedoms are stupid. It made me think of the new movie The Interview -- an essay about it would've worked perfectly here. The Interview got play in all the geopolitical discourse when it came out, but it's really (from what I can tell) a movie primarily about farts and violence.

There does seem to be this endless market for guys farting and acting like adolescents. It's not a fascination for me, but maybe more of an envy, yes, for immaturity. For not having to sign up for a full-fledged adult life and everything that that entails. I think people have a kind of ambivalence -- in the sense of positive and negative feelings, and associations, with stupid behavior. But you might still often want to play the role of public superego, and thwack people for their immaturities, and I think there's an envy of their freedom in that want.

Your chapter on juicers does a great job of highlighting some remaining "pre-capitalistic" ideas, particularly in sports media.

These are ideas bizarre to me. Especially with the Tiger Woods business… why does his talent for a weird sport -- hitting a little ball into a hole -- why would this correlate with some sort of moral exemplar status? I don't get the thinking behind that.

His arc is a sort of weird reverse of the Larry Flynt story. Tiger went from being perceived as a moral exemplar to a depraved pervert, basically, where for Flynt it was the other way around. The way you trace Flynt's story is a great challenge to common ideas of success.

Yeah -- if anyone wants to give me accolades for anything, I mean, who isn't a sucker for that? I find [Flynt] disappointing on one hand, because I want him to stand up for his anti-bourgeoisie principles, instead of accepting his role as first amendment hero. But I'll take any accolades anyone wants to throw my way.

Ultimately, he's looking for love. That seems to be what most of these men are really doing.

Absolutely, that's a lot of what I think the bottom line is throughout the book... and as long as we're talking about the Tiger Woods part: the women were after something from him, too. To bask in his aura, to find some kind of affirmation. Love, in one form or another -- just as Tiger was seeking. The scary thing with all this is the insatiability of all these figures. No amount is ever enough. Somebody like Tiger, you'd think being a world-famous sports champion and a spokesperson for every single thing would be enough affirmation, but apparently not. There is something pathos-filled about so many of these figures that I ended up writing about. But also there are people who are drawn to them -- like the bevy of women drawn to Tiger for similar reasons.

I have to go back to Milos Forman's Flynt movie now -- I watched it when I was young, and you criticize it so well that I'm almost sure I wouldn't like it anymore upon another look.

Will you also have to re-watch House of Games [a 1987 David Mamet film, about which there's an essay in Men]?

I think I'll pass on that one; it sounds very bad.

I really became a hate-watcher of it. I hated it and couldn't stop watching it. There's something clever and compelling about his language, but you do feel kind of scummy after you've enjoyed something of his.

That one sounds like he was just skillfully pushing your face into the dirt.

Exactly.

I'd never heard of the harassing Jackie O. photographer you write about.

Ah, yes. Ron Galella. I was interested in the way these figures who were once found despicable get elevated, or sanitized. Flynt was definitely one; now he's some kind of elder statesman... slash pornographer. I've also written about R. Crumb, someone who I thought of including a chapter about in this book, but I ended up not doing that. He's also someone who was thought of as a renegade and an underground figure, but who now has museum shows and is revered. He's crossed into the pantheon of "respectable artist," as opposed to what he was before. I'm curious about this desire to "clean up" these figures but also the ways they themselves participate in, and revel in, the cleaning. It's like trading up for respectability.

The line "where male melodrama begins" got at one of my favorite themes in the book. I think we're still in the transition where we're accepting more and more... sloppy men in our narratives. Losers, men of pathos, etc.

There's been a lot written about problematic male characters, like Walter White and that kind of thing... there's something about the tormented male psyche being on display at this time, both in fictional and nonfictional forms. You've got these TV shows where torments of the male psyche are foregrounded. But it seems to me there are also real-life counterparts. Like Anthony Weiner, or even Tiger Woods. They're acting their torment out on the public stage. They're turning their lives into a form of public theater. I'm not sure whether the audience drives it, or the individuals drive it, but it is as if they're performing for an audience. With Anthony Weiner, he was sending those "sexts" not just to that college girl, but to everyone. We were the designated audience for these conflicts of his.

There's a great tension you cut to, about things being written or imagined, versus taking place or being acted out in real life. The chapter on James Lasdun's memoir is a great example of that.

That was so fascinating to me. He'd written a novel that his life later seemed to replicate. It was unclear whether he, in writing this memoir, kind of reproduced the same story. It's so psychoanalytic -- the way we keep telling this same story, and how something that happens in the world relates to your personal fictions.

The Weiner episode seems like one that would have been written as a novel fifty years ago.

I compared it to Portnoy's Complaint. I call it Weiner's Complaint because it was so much like a performed novel.

Everything sells better now if it's believed to be real.

There is a sort of fascination with experience. I'm more drawn to real people who turn themselves into characters, and then perform on the public stage, than I am in writing a novel and making up these characters. The novel still has a cultural respect, but what people seem to want to read are these true stories.